Florida legislature opens redistricting process to all

The Republigator, a Florida salute to Elkanah Tisdale and his original Gerrymander cartoon, showing Florida after the 2010 redistricting. (Illustration by the author © 2021.)

Sept. 27, 2021 by David Silverberg

Do you think you can draw better political maps than the state legislators in Tallahassee?

Now you can get your chance.

A new website, Florida Redistricting, launched Monday, Sept. 20, gives anyone who cares to use it the opportunity to recommend re-jiggering the state’s political boundaries based on 2020 Census data.

It’s a remarkable experiment in citizen participation and a striking change from past redistricting done in dark, smoke-filled rooms out of public sight.

Of course, while citizens can make plenty of suggestions it will be the legislature that finally decides how the maps will be drawn.

Still, for a state that has increasingly pulled the curtain on its vaunted principles of sunshine in government, it is an exceptional departure from the past. It brings a bit of light to a process that is unglamorous but essential—and determines the partisan balance of power for the decade to come.

The process

Redistricting actually consists of two processes: redistricting (redrawing district lines) and reapportionment (redistributing congressional seats among the states).  

Next year Florida gets one new seat in Congress based on its increase in population since 2010. That new district is expected to be in the high-growth area of Orlando or somewhere along the I-4 corridor.

The original cartoon that gave rise to the term “gerrymander.

Traditionally, redistricting is colloquially known as the process whereby politicians choose their voters, so voters will likely choose them at election time. It has been manipulated since the beginning of the American republic—and even before, in colonial times. In 1812 it gave rise to the term “gerrymander” after Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry so manipulated the state’s district maps to his political advantage that what emerged was a salamander-like creature immortalized in a newspaper cartoon.

Republicans have been past masters of drawing lines to favor their party. This was highlighted in January 2020, after the death of Republican redistricting consultant Thomas Hofeller. His daughter Stephanie made public the contents of four external hard drives and 18 thumb drives from her father’s office, revealing his detailed gerrymandering work. While he was based in North Carolina, he had clients all over the country and participated in Florida’s redistricting.

In 2010 two constitutional amendments, 5 and 6, were on the ballot in Florida. Amendment 5 covered legislative districts, amendment 6 covered congressional districts and both were known as the Fair Districts Amendments.

Both amendments required that: “districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.”

In the 2010 election both amendments passed with 63 percent of the vote, despite vehement opposition from the state’s Republican lawmakers. (Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) joined a lawsuit to block their implementation, which failed.)

Despite the amendments, Florida’s 2010 maps were drawn by consultants and political operatives who maneuvered behind the scenes to push Republican dominance. The lines were so elaborately gerrymandered when the maps were revealed that fair districts supporters sued to overturn them.

A “group of Republican political consultants did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process,” ruled Judge Terry Lewis of the 2nd Judicial Circuit in 2014. “They made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting” and “went to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan,” and “managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent.”

It took five years of litigation to finally end the disputes, during which two elections took place.

Carving up Southwest Florida

Southwest Florida’s congressional districts—17, 19 and 25—were clearly the products of these labors, diluting any potential Democratic blocs of voters to favor Republican hegemony. (For more, see the 2019 articles: “Gerrymandering comes home to Southwest Florida” and “A tale of two swamps: Why Southwest Florida can’t keep its congressmen.”)

This year state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Estero), who heads the state Senate’s reapportionment committee, is promising that the process will be open, fair and transparent and meet both the spirit and letter of Florida’s Fair Districts Amendments.

“We are taking steps to safeguard against the kind of shadow process that occurred in the last cycle,” Rodrigues said during the first meeting of his committee on Monday, Sept. 20. “We will protect our process against the ‘astroturfing’ that occurred in the past, where partisan political operatives from both parties wrote scripts and recruited speakers to advocate for certain plans or district configurations to create a false impression of a widespread grassroots movement.”

He added: “Fortunately, we now have the insight into both the judiciary’s expanded scope of review, and how courts have interpreted and applied the constitutional standards related to redistricting. I intend for this committee to conduct the process in a manner that is consistent with case law that developed during the last decade that is beyond reproach and free from any hint of unconstitutional intent.”

How they break down

According to the 2020 Census, Florida gained 2,736,877 people over the last ten years and now has a population of 21,538,187.

In Southwest Florida, Lee County gained 142,068 residents, reaching a population of 760,822. Collier County gained 54,232 people to reach a total population of 375,752. Charlotte County gained 26,869 people to reach a total of 186,847.

The redistricting effort will try to bring the new districts into line with ideal population levels while meeting Fair Districting criteria. Since all of Southwest Florida gained population above the ideal, most—but not all—its districts are considered “overpopulated.”

Congressional districts

Southwest Florida’s congressional districts. (Map: FloridaRedistricting.gov)

Ideally, each Florida congressional district should have 769,221 people in it, a gain of 72,876 from last time.

According to the data from FloridaRedistricting.gov, in Southwest Florida the current congressional districts break down as follows:

  • District 17: With a total population of 779,955 people, it has 10,734 or .014 percent people more than the ideal number.
  • District 19: With a total population of 835,012 people, it has 65,791 or .086 percent more people than the ideal number.
  • District 25: With a total population of 771,434 people, it has 2,213 or .003 percent more people than the ideal number.

To find your congressional district, click here.

Southwest Florida Senate districts

Southwest Florida’s state Senate districts. (Map: FloridaRedistricting.gov)

Senate districts should ideally have a population of 538,455 people.

The two main Senate districts covering Southwest Florida are 27 and 28.

  • District 27 has 579,819 people, 41,364 or .077 percent more than the ideal.
  • District 28 has 563,557 people, 25,102 or .047 percent more than the ideal.

To find your Florida Senate district, click here.

Southwest Florida House districts

Southwest Florida state House districts. (Map: FloridaRedistricting.gov)

State House districts should have 179,485 people.

  • District 76: With 180,111 people, it has 626 or .003 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 77: With 197,485 people, it has 17,997 or .1 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 78: With 193,526 people, it has 14,041 or .078 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 79: With 189,703 people, it has 10,218 or .057 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 80: With 188,858 people, it has 9.373 or .052 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 105: With 176,959 people it has 2,526 or .014 percent fewer people than the ideal.
  • District 106: With 164,757 people it has 14,728 or.082 percent fewer people than the ideal.

To find your Florida House district, click here.

Can it really happen?

In its effort to be inclusive, the Florida legislature is giving residents the opportunity to draw their own maps and recommend changes.

It’s a chance people should seize by going to the website.

To submit maps and recommendations a user has to create an account on the website. The site has a quick-start guide to walk users through the process.

Once in, users can fiddle with the maps to their heart’s content and send recommendations to the legislature.

It’s a remarkable innovation in participatory democracy. Time, however, is of the essence. The legislative redistricting session convenes on Jan. 11 of next year and it must complete its work by the time it adjourns on March 11. Without a doubt, it will be a contentious session.

After that, there will presumably be newly-drawn districts. By June 11, candidates will qualify to run for office. Then the party primaries will take place on Aug. 23 and the general election on Nov. 8.

Can this experiment in popular participation actually result in fairly drawn, politically neutral boundaries?

Obviously, it remains to be seen. In 2010 the Fair Districting Amendments passed overwhelmingly but the maps that came out were gerrymandered anyway. Florida always seems to have a way of ignoring or circumventing its most popular constitutional amendments.

Coming out of the gate, though, Rodrigues’ intentions seem good if his words are taken at face value.

If this experiment works Florida could become a national model of fair districting. This time, if citizens are alert, engaged and determined, maybe—just maybe—Florida for once might abide by its own constitution and put to rest the gerrymander, or, in this case, the Republigator.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Texas-like abortion bill filed in Florida; pro-choice coalition to protest Oct. 2 at Collier County Courthouse

Demonstrations planned across the country

Pro-choice demonstrators protest in Naples, Fla., on May 21, 2019. (Photo: Author)

Sept. 23, 2021 by David Silverberg

The fight over women’s reproductive rights in Florida was joined yesterday, Sept. 22, when state House Bill (HB) 167, a Florida version of the Texas abortion prohibition law, was filed by Rep. Webster Barnaby (R-27-Volusia County) at 9:14 am.

As the bill’s summary states, it: “Requires physician to conduct test for, & inform woman seeking abortion of, presence of detectable fetal heartbeat; prohibits physician from performing or inducing abortion if fetal heartbeat is detected or if physician fails to conduct test to detect fetal heartbeat; provides exceptions; authorizes private civil cause of action for certain violations; provides for civil remedies & damages.”

State Rep. Webster Barnaby (Photo: Barnaby campaign)

Oddly, while the introduction caused an immediate storm of protest from pro-choice activists and Democrats, Barnaby himself was silent about the bill, neither issuing a statement explaining his action nor posting any comment on his social media platforms.

Pro-choice groups around the country were already organizing for a National Day of Action to Mobilize and Defend Reproductive Rights on Saturday, Oct. 2. In Florida, the group Florida Reproductive Freedom is organizing rallies in 13 cities throughout the state.

In Collier County a coalition of groups has called for a major demonstration at the Collier County Courthouse in Naples that Saturday, Oct. 2, at 10 am for two hours. (Full disclosure: The Paradise Progressive is a sponsor.)

The demonstration is intended to get elected officials to commit to reproductive freedom.

Scheduled speakers include Stephanie Fraim, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida; Corrie Vega, a Collier County public school teacher and Rev. Tony Fisher of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Naples.

Angela Cisneros, co-founder of Collier NOW (National Organization for Women) and a scheduled speaker, stated: “We all desire to live a safe and healthy life, free to pursue our own paths. However, the types of bans passed in Texas and currently being framed here in Florida are in direct opposition to that premise. An abortion ban would be especially detrimental to those of us from communities with few resources that already face barriers to basic healthcare.”

State Senate prospects

The Florida Senate’s president, Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-10-Citrus and Hernando counties), may introduce similar legislation in that body.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-28-Collier County), the Senate Majority Leader and a possible Senate president in 2022, told Florida Politics after the Supreme Court let stand the Texas law that she is “pro-life but I am not pro-telling on your neighbors.”

Passidomo said in a speech to the Argus Foundation in Sarasota that she does not favor an exact “cut-and-paste” of the Texas law for Florida.

“There are provisions in there that don’t make sense,” she said. “We need to do what’s right for Florida.”

Passidomo stressed, however, that she is an anti-abortion legislator.

Poster for the Oct. 2 rally at the Collier County Courthouse.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Could Gov. Ron DeSantis face a recall in Florida?

Gov. Ron DeSantis (Caricature: Donkey Hotey via Wikimedia)

Sept. 17, 2021 by David Silverberg

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s smashing victory in California’s recall election has sparked hope in the hearts of some Floridians that a similar effort can be mounted in Florida to recall Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

As the New York expression goes: “Fuggedaboudit!

Florida has no constitutional recall provision. What you get in a Florida election is what you’re stuck with until the end of the term.

Florida is hardly alone in this. Only 19 states have gubernatorial recall provisions.

Nationally, the US Constitution has no provisions for recalls of any kind. A president can be removed following impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors but otherwise he’s in office for the length of his term.

It’s not as though Floridians are not expressing their displeasure with DeSantis’ governing. A Change.org petition to recall DeSantis had 93,609 signatures as of this writing. A MoveOn.org recall petition had 8,913 signatures.

However, the next real opportunity to recall DeSantis comes on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022.

The silly season that isn’t

The days before an election are often referred to as “silly season.” It’s when politicians say and do strange and often outlandish things to get elected.

While the election is still a year and nearly two months away, “silly season” is well under way, only right now there’s nothing funny about it due to the COVID pandemic.

A sensible, center-governing politician of any party or persuasion might ordinarily be expected to throw some rhetorical bones to the more rabid dogs in his following, sometimes tossing some real red meat as well. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of ensuring the health, welfare and prosperity of those in his jurisdiction, decisions have to be driven to some extent by reason, reality and logic.

That’s not happening in Florida. In rhetoric and action, DeSantis is proving a hard-right, extreme, Trumpist governor who is matching extreme rhetoric with extreme action. At every level he appears to be governing for the sake, and at the direction, of a hard-core, fanatical, minority base. In matters of life and death he’s not only offering up COVID-denying rhetoric, he’s actively impeding and obstructing science-based measures like masking and vaccinations and attacking those who do try to implement them, like local school districts.

This includes his ban on school mask mandates, on vaccination “passports,” threats to withhold salaries of school officials who defy his ban in order to protect children, appeals of a court order challenging his ban, threats to fine Florida cities that impose a vaccine mandate on their workers, attacks on federal COVID-prevention mandates and silence in the face of false claims and disinformation about vaccines and COVID precautions.

In a Sept. 14 editorial, The Washington Post characterized his actions as “a jaw-dropping level of cynicism.”

It stated: “Mr. DeSantis harbors national political ambitions. But what he’s displaying here is crass opportunism and disregard for the greater good. As he stokes the ignorance and misguided impulses of some in the Republican base, he is acting against the very tools needed to save lives and stop the pandemic.”

The former president may not be directing DeSantis but DeSantis is closely following the Trumpist playbook, from threats and intimidation to impose his will down to the denial and dismissal of the COVID-19 threat and indifference to its consequences.

Leaching down to Lee County

The DeSantis method and Trumpist playbook are not only playing out in the state capital but like Trumpism itself, are leaching down into local nooks and crannies at the local level.

Case in point is the Lee County School District. When Judge John Cooper of the 2nd Judicial Circuit of Florida overturned the governor’s school mask ban on Sept.  2, Lee County School Superintendent Ken Savage was free to impose a mask mandate to last the month of September.

However, when the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Cooper’s order and left the ban in place, Savage felt he was compelled to allow parents to opt out and so he did beginning on Sept. 14.

“Given the legal landscape, I am appealing to your humanity and sense of community,” Savage wrote in a letter to the community. “With approximately 500 COVID-19 patients isolated within our local hospital system, and a 101 percent staffed bed capacity over the weekend, remember that these aren’t just numbers. These are people. These are your neighbors, your family, your friends, your co-workers. I choose to believe that the vast majority of our community are reasonable, caring people who want this surge to end as quickly as possible and would willingly volunteer to wear masks as an additional measure to protect each other from harm.”

He concluded: “I implore you to prove your commitment to each other by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, and following other safety protocols to help us get through this surge together. I will never underestimate our community’s ability to show love and compassion for each other.”

Savage’s civilized faith in the love, compassion and reason of his community was admirable but hardly reciprocated. Demonstrations against the mask mandate brought out shoving matches by mask opponents in front of the School District headquarters and heated rhetoric inside its council room.

On a political basis it provided an opportunity for state Rep. Spencer Roach (R-79-Buckingham) to send a letter to Savage demanding an end to the mask mandate or face a Roach call to DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for his firing.

In fact the Lee County School District had to allow a temporary, court-imposed, opt-out option. As Savage wrote in his letter to parents: “…last Friday, the 1st District Court of Appeal instituted a stay, which means the Florida Department of Education can continue to enforce its interpretation of the parental opt out until this matter is ultimately resolved.” As a result, an opt-out provision had to be instituted for students, although not for employees.

The Lee County retreat was hailed by local conservatives and anti-maskers as a huge victory for their cause.

Roach’s gesture certainly rebounded to his benefit with the anti-mask constituency, prompting them to credit him for the change in Lee County policy. As a bit of political sleight of hand, it was deftly done.

Roach’s grandstanding is just one example of the kind of maneuvering that will be increasing across the board in Florida as the clock ticks toward Election Day.

Why are they acting this way?

Florida is now in the grip of a governing party for whom the lives of Floridians are not even a secondary consideration. The clear calculation is that serving the extreme anti-vaxx, anti-mask, COVID-denying base is the formula for success at the polls.

But is that true? In California it clearly was not. Californians overwhelmingly rejected the Trumpist mantra.

So far, the polling—at least the publicly available polling—is paltry in Florida but it would seem to indicate that the silent majority of Floridians support mask and vaccination mandates and COVID precautions.

That was the result indicated by the most recent poll on the topic, conducted by Quinnipiac University from August 17 to 21 and released on Aug. 24. Quinnipiac polling is highly respected, getting an A- rating from the FiveThirtyEight.com website. This poll was based on responses from 997 Florida adults.

The poll found that by 60 to 35 percent, Floridians supported requiring masks in schools. By 68 to 27 percent they believed that local school officials should be free to make the decision. What was more, 69 percent to 25 percent thought DeSantis’ withholding of school salaries to force compliance was a bad idea—and that finding applied across the political spectrum.

“As COVID-19 makes a frightening resurgence, it’s Tallahassee vs. the teaching institutions,” stated Tim Malloy, a Quinnipiac polling analyst. “Thumbs down from Floridians on DeSantis’ ban on mask requirements in public schools. Thumbs down on DeSantis’ call to freeze pay of administrators who mandate mask wearing. And he gets scant support from fellow Republicans on penalizing the school leaders who defy him.”

Regrettably, more granular data from Southwest Florida is not publicly available.

If most Floridians don’t approve of the DeSantis/Trump approach to handling the pandemic and this could prove politically damaging, why are DeSantis and other Florida Republicans sticking so stubbornly to policies and positions that are killing Floridians and endangering their children?

Five reasons immediately suggest themselves:

They’re true believers. DeSantis, Roach and other Republicans truly believe the anti-mask, anti-vaccination, disease-denying ideology. This is not just an act, it is not just a pose, and it is a real, heartfelt opposition to COVID precautions. In this it mirrors Donald Trump’s own reaction to the COVID pandemic as president. As for the deaths and infections resulting from this stance, in their minds that’s just collateral damage. In some ways a true-believing politician is more dangerous than a cynical one—at least a cynic can be swayed by reason, self-interest or constituent needs.

It will help them win the next election. DeSantis and the Republicans believe that the strength of the COVID-denying base is sufficient to help them win the election in 2022 and possibly 2024. This also applies down the line in congressional, county and municipal elections. As result they’re pandering to its prejudices and extremism.

It will all be forgotten by next November. Politicians and the public know that voters have short memories. No doubt DeSantis and the Republicans are calculating that by November 2022 the pandemic will be a bad dream that voters are eager to forget—at least the ones that are still alive.

There’s a presidential race on. Certainly at the gubernatorial level, DeSantis has long been running for the presidential nod in 2024. In the Republican Party he has to compete with the likes of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in a race to the rim of reason. These candidates must prove themselves sufficiently fanatical to win over the hard-core militants and walk in the footsteps of Donald Trump—who might himself overturn their calculations by demanding the Party’s nomination in 2024.

The extremists are louder. Without data, sense or logic, COVID-deniers and anti-vaxxers are using volume to fight efforts to stem the pandemic. They’re loud, threatening and they turn out in numbers at demonstrations like the ones at the Lee County School Board. It makes an impression on television and certainly impacts school board members and local officials. It is also what some politicians heed and fear to contradict.

The COVID-deniers, anti-vaxxers and Republican politicians frame the debate over masks and vaccinations as one of personal choice versus government overreach. But what they overlook or ignore is the nature of the disease itself. They regard this as one more political issue that can be dealt with on a human timetable and at human discretion.

However, COVID is not subject to human whims or desires. It is literally a force of nature that operates on its own timetable and according to its own imperatives. As humans—and especially as Americans—we’re accustomed to imposing our will on nature; this is a case of nature forcing us to adapt to it. DeSantis and the Republicans have not made that mental adjustment.

Politically, all this will play out in the next election. It’s clear: those Floridians who believe in science, who don’t want their school-age children used as pawns, who prefer to adapt to real-world conditions rather than impose comforting delusions on reality, will have to be more active, determined and mobilized than their opponents and show up in greater numbers.

And that is the only way to recall a governor of Florida.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

The Battle of Collier County: Inside one county’s struggle to stay in the United States

Highlights and impressions of the debate over a ‘Bill of Rights sanctuary’ ordinance

A packed house at the outset of a hearing on a federal nullification ordinance in Collier County, Fla. Many opponents of the ordinance were masked while many proponents wore flag-themed attire. (Photo: Author)

July 16, 2021 by David Silverberg

On Tuesday, July 13, Collier County, Florida, chose to remain part of the United States, by a single vote.

But as significantly, the County Commission also chose to unanimously reaffirm the county’s allegiance to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights by passing a positive resolution that stated: “The county commission of Collier County, Florida, reaffirms its loyalty, its patriotism and its allegiance to the United States Constitution, its Bill of Rights, its amendments and the duly constituted laws.”

All this would seem to be self-evident—but in Collier County, as in many other places around the nation, what was once self-evident is no longer.

Collier County, Florida

By a vote of 3 to 2, the Commission rejected a “Bill of Rights sanctuary” ordinance that sought to nullify federal authority in the county.

Commission chair Penny Taylor (District 4) and commissioners Andy Solis (District 2) and Burt Saunders (District 3) voted against the ordinance. Commissioners Rick LoCastro (District 1) and William McDaniel Jr. (District 5), who introduced it, voted for it.

After dispatching the ordinance, the commissioners approved the resolution reaffirming allegiance to the Constitution.

The votes came after a marathon hearing session that started about 1 pm in the afternoon and stretched until 8:45 pm. At least 122 people requested speaking slots, providing input both in person and remotely.

Both those for and against the ordinance understood and appreciated its greater significance. It would have been the first such ordinance in Florida and proponents stated overtly that if it passed they were going to take it to Florida’s 66 other counties. From there it could have spread throughout the country. Opponents knew it had to be stopped. This wasn’t just about Collier County; it was about the future of the nation.

For the first time ever, a decision made in a Collier County Commission chamber could have changed the nation’s nature—and everyone knew it.

What follows are impressions from the session and the vote.

(Full disclosure: This author was one of the speakers opposing the ordinance and the drafter of the resolution reaffirming loyalty to the Constitution and Bill of Rights.)

(The entire 4-hour and 30-minute video of the hearing portion of the Commission meeting can be viewed here.)

(To see previous coverage of the ordinance, see A license for lawlessness: Collier County, Florida’s proposed “sanctuary ordinance” and a better way forward and Sanctuary in America: Haven or insurrection by other means?)

The bombshell

Anyone who came to the meeting should have been prepared for all kinds of fireworks. As a sign of the drama to come, proponents, many wearing flag-related clothing and paraphernalia, were outside the Commission building bright and early before the session began with signs advocating a “yes” vote.

They had reason to be confident. A June 22 meeting when the Commission voted to consider the ordinance had gone their way. At that meeting the ordinance received the endorsement of the district’s congressman, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), and the county’s top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Kevin Rambosk. It was also endorsed by state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-106-Naples) who sent a surrogate to express his support. At that meeting all the public speakers were in favor of the ordinance and not a single member of the public opposed it.

At the June meeting Commissioner McDaniel fulsomely introduced the ordinance and LoCastro made favorable remarks. Although Saunders said he wasn’t committed to the ordinance, he voted for its consideration and it seemed as though he could be swayed—or pressured—to vote in favor.

Other than the opponents who showed up this time, there was no reason to expect that the ordinance might not sail through on a similar 3 to 2 vote again. All the big guns lined up in their favor.

Nor did they just rely on their numbers or enthusiasm to get their way. Prior to this hearing they gathered in the hallway outside the Commission chamber to hold a prayer meeting and invoke Jesus’ assistance in swaying the commissioners.

Proponents of the nullification ordinance spend a moment in prayer in the hallway of the county Commission meeting room before the hearing begins. (Photo: author)

But if there was any single bombshell dropped during the July 13 hearing, it came when County Attorney Jeffrey Klatzkow rose to provide his analysis of the legal and fiscal impacts of the ordinance.

Scholarly, legalistic and calm, Klatzkow delivered the news that the ordinance would strip  institutional immunity from the county’s five commissioners, five constitutional officers and five school board members, as well as staff.

In other words, under the ordinance, if they carried out actions that aided the federal government in what was considered a violation of the Bill of Rights by an aggrieved party they could be personally sued. The plaintiff might not win in court but the defendants would have to pay court costs out of their own pockets.

Jeffrey Klatzkow

“The big issue here is not going to be damages,” Klatzkow said. “It’s going to be attorney’s fees. There is an incentive for attorneys to bring actions under this because every hour they put in is an hour they can bill.” 

It didn’t take much imagination to see where that could lead: commissioners and county officials could be sued into bankruptcy simply for making the county function through otherwise legal official actions.

Although Klatzkow didn’t say it, it was clear that the ordinance could bring the whole county to a halt and destroy the county government itself. In response to a question from Solis, Klatzkow mentioned that the Supervisor of Elections would be liable as a constitutional officer—and any observer could foresee lawsuits like this making elections impossible.

An observer could also see the impact of Klatzkow’s analysis sink in on the faces of the commissioners—but he wasn’t done yet.

Collier County, like virtually every jurisdiction in the country, relies on federal financial grants to pay for a wide variety of functions. But federal grants don’t come without strings; in this case with numerous rules and regulations governing oversight, receipt, performance and a wide variety of other requirements and conditions.

Klatzkow dramatically demonstrated just how many strings were attached by displaying five, single-spaced pages of rules and regulations that he projected to the chamber, one after the other.

If Collier County removed itself from federal jurisdiction it would lose all those grants, all that money, Klatzkow warned.

He didn’t say it aloud, but it was clear that passing the ordinance would beggar an otherwise affluent and prosperous county.

If Klatzkow wanted to make an impression, he certainly did.

The proponents

Klatzkow’s presentation put the ordinance’s proponents on the defensive. It was clear from the presentations of the key advocates who followed Klatzkow that they had to move the commissioners away from contemplating the potentially devastating fiscal impact of passing the ordinance.

James Rosenberger

The first public speaker to try to do this was James Rosenberger, a tall, stooped county resident who launched the petition for the ordinance and gained 5,000 signatures. His tactic was to compare the ease and safety of the current commissioners with the revolutionaries who put their lives on the line to rebel against the British in 1776. They should do the same now, he argued, and ignore the possible unintended consequences of passing the ordinance.

“You can lead, follow or get out of the way,” he said, drawing on what he said was a firefighting mantra in his experience. “If you’re incapable of leading today maybe this job isn’t for you and I suggest along with ‘we the people’ that you get out of the way, step down and make room for someone who will lead us like our forefathers did almost 250 years ago.”

Having now threatened and insulted the people he was trying to convince, Rosenberger made way for his wife, Carol DiPaolo, who traced the origins of the nullification ordinance movement to a meeting of seven concerned friends from a variety of backgrounds. They had gathered to share their “concern, anxiety, fear and anger”—over measures like mask mandates, gun restrictions, and “President Biden and his pen.”

Carol DiPaolo

In the Spring, the group collected signatures to create a 2nd Amendment sanctuary in Collier County but were rebuffed by the county Commission. However they were contacted by Keith Flaugh of the conservative Florida Citizens Alliance and people from The Alamo gun range and store in Naples, whom they hadn’t previously known. With the aid of “prominent” Collier County supporters the nullification ordinance was drawn up and presented at the June 22 meeting. DiPaolo urged the commissioners to pass it now.

From DiPaolo onward, the proponents held the floor, with one exception: Undersheriff Col. Jim Bloom of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, who was standing in for Rambosk.

Bloom testified that the ordinance was enforceable like any other law in the county but when asked by Solis what procedure the office would follow to enforce it, he said the office would contact the state’s attorney to prosecute violations.

Bloom and Rambosk may not have intended it but that procedure set up an effective Catch-22, wherein they were seeking a higher authority to enforce and prosecute an essentially unconstitutional ordinance that didn’t recognize higher authority.

What was more, Solis said he had called the state’s attorney, who said his office had not been consulted about the ordinance.

But while Bloom’s answer introduced what was essentially an insurmountable “logic loop,” that did not deter Kristina Heuser, the lawyer who drew up the ordinance. She defended its legality.

Keith Flaugh

She was followed by Flaugh, who drew a stark choice for the commissioners: “There seem to be the two factions,” he said. “Those who support the individual rights that you have sworn to protect and those who support an unfettered federal government in control of our everyday lives.”

He also gave commissioners a stark choice. “For anyone of you who decide to vote ‘no’ on this I urge you and suggest you have only one honorable course of action: to resign before you disgrace yourself any further.”

Subsequent proponents spoke on similar themes. State Rep. Rommel made an appearance to support the ordinance, saying he wanted his local sheriff in charge and alleging that the US Capitol Police were opening an office in Tampa to pursue people in Southwest Florida. He warned that the federal government was eroding God-given rights. “Anything less than unanimous agreement will be extremely disappointing,” he said to the Commission.

As the hours wore on the arguments grew louder and while not disorderly became less disciplined and more wide-ranging.

Proponent Beth Sherman used her time at the speaker’s lectern to launch a full-scale attack on vaccinations, anti-COVID measures and the local health system.

Beth Sherman

“We are living in a time of deceit and tyranny,” she said. “NCH [Naples Community Hospital] should not be allowed to provide medical data or advice to this community. They have been suppressing life-saving COVID treatments like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.” She accused Solis of supporting mandatory vaccinations, which he vehemently denied.

“There are people in this room being called insurrectionists,” she said. “Let me tell you that there is plenty of evidence that the FBI planned that as a false flag and it will come out because the truth always comes out.”

Lastly she warned the commissioners: “If you vote ‘no’ today, we the people kindly ask that you resign so that a true leader can fill your seat.”

The opponents

Jane Schlechtweg (left) and Chris Chase (right), members of the Democratic Women’s Club of Marco Island, and opponents of the ordinance. (Photo: author)

Unlike the June 22 meeting when no opponents appeared, this time there was strong turnout by people opposed to the ordinance and opponents may have constituted a majority of the speakers.

Janet Hoffman, head of the Collier County League of Women Voters, spoke for the non-partisan organization when she announced that “We don’t support this ordinance. It suggests that Collier County officials pick and choose the laws they want to follow.”

While many residents spoke out against the ordinance, those who spoke most knowledgably were retired lawyers, some with experience in local affairs.

George Dondanville, an attorney with considerable government experience said, “I’ve never heard of anything like this ordinance. How am I going to do what I’m supposed to do under this ordinance?”

While proponents viewed objections as mere stumbling blocks to passage of the ordinance, Dondanville pointed out that “our stumbling block is our form of government. Our courts make those decisions. Your own attorney sitting over there says that this thing flies in the face of the Constitution. You can pass it if you want but you’re going to get into serious financial problems. Those aren’t scare tactics at all. Please don’t pass this.”

Retired attorney Robert Leher said: “The definition of an unlawful act in this ordinance has no ascertainable standard for what is unlawful” and he had “never seen a statute that was more poorly drafted.” He also warned that passing the ordinance would result in a drop in tourism and visitation because “people don’t want to come to a battlezone.”

“This is wrong in so many ways,” he concluded.

David Goldstein, a retired attorney who served the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Collier County, warned that “nothing empowers a county with the power to supersede federal law.”

David Millstein, a retired civil rights attorney who also taught civil rights law and served as former head of the Collier County ACLU, said he tried to put himself in the shoes of the county attorney trying to defend and implement it.

“This is an ordinance proposed by someone who doesn’t know constitutional law,” he said. “You can’t make an ordinance saying you’re not going to follow federal law. Why not make this an income tax sanctuary ordinance? It is so unconstitutional in so many ways I would say, ‘Let’s go out and have a beer and forget about this.’”

Speech before the Commission as delivered by the author:

“I am here today to urge you to reject this absurd, unconstitutional and completely unnecessary ordinance. This is frankly ridiculous on its face. There is simply no need for a separate Collier County sanctuary for the Bill of Rights because the United States of America is a sanctuary for the Bill of Rights. Our law is uniform, it is superseding and it is upheld.

This ordinance, this proposed ordinance, has so many problems between the principle and the practical that it is as full of holes as a piece of Swiss cheese. I mean, there are logic loops, you’re going to challenge federal law in what court after you’ve denied federal jurisdiction? There are so many things that simply don’t make sense.

In addition, talking very pragmatically, your lawyer has talked about the fact that this would open you all up to liability. I believe it opens up our sheriff and sheriff’s deputies also to liability. If they try to assert federal law they are liable to be sued.

There are all sorts of questions about federal investigations that might be going on in this county that might be disrupted or hindered.

There is also, you know, when have an Irma, or an Elsa or a Wilma hurricane, if we remove ourselves from federal law we’re not going to get the assistance and the support and the help that we need from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and this can run into many millions of dollars, as you all well know.

You cannot take yourself out of the jurisdiction of federal law.

Now, I like everyone else, am very concerned about the Constitution and upholding the Bill of Rights. I mean, we’ve had an insurrection.

(Laughter and catcalls from proponents, gaveled into order by Commissioner Taylor.)

There is a need to support the Constitution. This is easily done in this county.

Now, on all your desks you have a draft text of a resolution that reaffirms Collier County’s allegiance to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I urge you to pass that resolution. It is something you can do, it is something in your jurisdiction and it is something that I think every resident of Collier County can support.

This, I think, will address everybody’s problems and concerns with possible violations of the Bill of Rights. We can do that here.

The United States of America has faced rebellion, nullification, secession, sedition and insurrection and it has defeated them all.

Collier County does not need to join this sad parade of bad ideas, failed notions and absurd plots and make itself not only a laughingstock of the country but to take itself out of the rule of law, which is what this ordinance is proposing to do.

So in summation: defeat this ordinance—this should be rejected and I will hope that it will be rejected unanimously—and I urge you to pass a resolution reaffirming our allegiance to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Thank you.

In the end, the Commission voted down the ordinance.

Solis said he was concerned about the role of the state’s attorney in making constitutional decisions when enforcing the ordinance. Taylor criticized the ordinance’s penalties, its unnecessariness, and the conflict it set up between supporting the ordinance or supporting the Constitution: “It’s almost like a trap,” she said. Saunders said that the solution to the concerns expressed by proponents was at the ballot box.

Both LoCastro and McDaniels argued that principle should prevail over any possible unintended consequences.

After the ordinance was defeated Taylor introduced the resolution reaffirming the county’s allegiance to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and it passed unanimously.

To the ballot box

The hearing in progress. (Photo: author)

As Winston Churchill said after the Al Alamein victory in World War II: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

So it was with this ordinance, which was like a spasm of Trumpism in its death throes.

It was clear from the proponents’ remarks that among them there is real “concern, anxiety, fear and anger,” as DiPaolo put it. Persistent fears mentioned by proponents were the possibility of mandatory vaccinations and that the Capitol Police were coming to Florida to hunt down people who had participated in what many regarded as a non-existent insurrection.

So much of their concern, anxiety, fear and anger was generated by an exaggerated hatred and suspicion of the US federal government fed by extremist media. Instead of seeing anti-COVID measures as common-sense, science-driven anti-disease precautions taken for the community’s good, the proponents viewed them as deliberately oppressive infringements on their personal lives and liberty. They clearly feel genuinely threatened by unfamiliar restrictions. What is more, several proponents characterized even the Commission’s authority to pass legislation as “tyrannical.”

But many of the proponents displayed a tyrannical streak of their own, threatening and bullying commissioners and insisting that a failure to vote their way result in resignation or disgrace.

The ordinance was an outgrowth of these concerns, anxieties, fears and anger as well as an insistent demand for obedience to the proponents’ will, all of it rendered into legalese. It was never viable as a law and would have been defeated in court after enormous delay, disruption and expense. It had the potential to seriously damage Collier County government and the county itself. And it could have harmed all of Florida and the nation had it spread.

The proponents are no doubt licking their wounds but the passion and paranoia that drove the ordinance remain, sustained by demagoguery and disinformation. Although one hopes that feelings will die down with time and the easing of the pandemic, the core activists will no doubt seek new outlets.

If the proponents stay within the law the next battle will be at the ballot box in 2022. The votes of the commissioners will no doubt be an issue in their election campaigns. The next election will see whether thoughtful people are in the majority in evaluating their records and accomplishments.

A major disappointment in all of this was the position of Sheriff Kevin Rambosk. A highly effective law enforcement leader, a respected professional and cutting edge technologist with experience as a city manager, his endorsement of an extreme ordinance of dubious enforceability calls his judgment into question. It also calls into question the ability of his office and officers to enforce the law impartially and apolitically. It creates a sad kernel of doubt about an otherwise unblemished and polished force. Like the ordinance itself, this was entirely unnecessary.

Although the struggle over rights and allegiances is not over, one can only hope that it plays itself out within the confines of the law and the institutions established by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to constructively channel such disagreements. As the nation goes on, so will the debate.

In 1787, after the Constitutional Convention completed its work, Benjamin Franklin told Americans that they had “a republic, if you can keep it.”

On Tuesday, July 13, 2021, Collier County chose to keep it.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Sanctuary in America: Haven or insurrection by other means?

An in-depth look at dueling definitions of ‘sanctuary’ in America and Southwest Florida and what they mean for the future

The Statue of Liberty in New York, the first sight for generations of immigrants seeking sanctuary in the United States. (Photo: Wikimedia)

July 7, 2021 by David Silverberg

Today the term “sanctuary” has taken on new meaning and is serving as a new cause of political controversy and contention.

This conflict is coming to a head in Southwest Florida—specifically in both Naples and Collier County—as movements to create sanctuary jurisdictions based on political criteria roil an otherwise placid region best known for its sunshine and beaches.

To understand the current conflict, it helps to go back into history and survey the evolution of the concept of sanctuary.

What are the origins of that concept? In the American political context, what were the sanctuaries of the past? What are the new concepts and how do they differ from previous concepts?

In a local context, how are these clashing concepts playing out in the American state of Florida—and especially in Southwest Florida?

And lastly, where is this heading and how is it likely to resolve itself?

Origins

In 1471 English King Edward IV is denied access to Lancastrian fugitives who have taken sanctuary in Tewkesbury Abbey. (Painting: Richard Burchett)

The notion of a place of sanctuary is very ancient.

The ancient Greeks and Romans revered groves and temples where people could find refuge from the forces that threatened them. In ancient Rome even slaves could find sanctuary at statues of gods and owners who otherwise possessed them would respect the site.

But it was in the Middle Ages that what is commonly thought of today as sanctuary made its appearance. By the thirteenth century a person could take refuge from secular authorities or a mob in a church. The refugee was allowed 40 days of safety during which time he had to be fed and protected; meanwhile, the interlude afforded time for negotiations, clemency, confession or proof of innocence. If none of those things took place, the refugee left the church, forfeited his goods and went into exile—but stayed alive.

Perhaps the most famous illustration of a medieval appeal for church sanctuary occurs in the novel (and movies) of The Hunchback of Notre Dame when the hunchback Quasimodo rescues the gypsy girl Esmeralda from hanging and, crying “sanctuary!” takes her into the cathedral for protection.

There have been other acts of sanctuary since then: French Huguenots were given refuge in England in 1681 in what may have been the first instance of a state offering sanctuary to another’s nationals. Today the concept of asylum has taken the place of the religious concept and been formalized between countries.

But in the United States the concept of sanctuary took different forms than in Europe—and for very different reasons.

The American context

In 2017 New Yorkers protest President Donald Trump’s ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. (Photo: Wikimedia)

From the day in 1620 that the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, the continent of America became a sanctuary for people fleeing religious persecution.

After the American revolution, President George Washington best expressed the American sense of tolerance and sanctuary in an August 17, 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation at Newport, Rhode Island, in which he said: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

The concept of sanctuary was deeply woven into the social fabric of the United States. It was next tested by the greatest moral challenge of the 19th century: slavery.

Beginning in the late 1700s anti-slavery activists using a variety of routes became known as the Underground Railroad, providing escaping slaves assistance and sanctuary on their way to ultimate sanctuary in non-slavery locations, chiefly Canada.

In the 20th century there were waves of dissent that gave rise to sanctuaries. In the 1960s dissident churches gave sanctuary to civil rights activists and Vietnam War draft resisters. Many Vietnam war resisters and those giving them sanctuary were arrested.

In the 1980s during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, Cold War conflicts in Latin America led to a rise in political refugees fleeing to the United States from countries like Nicargua, where the US was supporting a “Contra” movement against the communist government and El Salvador where the US was advising a repressive government.

“Sanctuary widened from the idea of a church to sanctuary communities who confronted immigration policies and intolerance as manifested in immigration policies,” writes Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser in the 2017 paper The Sanctuary Movement: A Brief History. “These actions included legal help and provision of shelter in private homes and other settings. They provided shelter in churches and homes, and created a modern Underground Railroad for refugees.”

As with the Vietnam War sanctuary movement, periodically the federal government would crack down on the sanctuaries and their refugees. Federal authorities arrested refugees and the Immigration and Naturalization Service deported them.

In the 21st century the 2016 election of President Donald Trump gave rise to immediate fears of deportation of “Dreamers;” undocumented US residents who had come to the country as children and been protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. During his campaign Trump said he would abolish DACA and deport the nearly 700,000 people, many of whom had known no other home.

Within days of Trump’s Nov. 3, 2016 election, his brutalist and threatening anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric led to a wave of “sanctuary campuses” at American colleges to protest his approach and provide refuge to migrants and Dreamers. From campuses the concept spread to cities.

The location of migrant sanctuary cities as of March 2021 according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank advocating restricted immigration. (Map: CIS)

The “sanctuary city” of the Trump era was one that refused to cooperate with federal deportation efforts. When a migrant was arrested, officials of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) directorate of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would issue a “detainer” requesting a 48 hour delay before the person was released so that his or her immigration status could be checked. If the detainee was found to be undocumented, the person would be subject to deportation. In “sanctuary cities,” officials refused to honor detainers.

The sanctuary city movement was based on the conviction that Trump administration policies were rooted in prejudice and persecution and therefore unjust. It took hold mainly in the Pacific northwest, the Atlantic northeast, California, the upper Midwest and in Colorado.

Although there were no declared sanctuary cities in Florida, on June 14, 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law outlawing sanctuary cities for migrants in the state.

Backlash

Gun owners demonstrate against restrictions outside the Virginia state Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 20, 2020. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Taking a leaf from the immigration sanctuary cities movement, conservative groups began using the “sanctuary” label for causes they regarded as threatened by the federal government.

To date, these causes have been protecting gun ownership, prohibiting abortion and nullifying federal laws.

“The push to impose ‘sanctuary’ and similar legislation is not the result of an organic, grassroots movement but rather a well-funded campaign marketed by the gun lobby and supported by antigovernment extremist groups such as Gun Owners of America, Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA),” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Gun sanctuaries

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 six and seven-year old children, six adult staff and himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. It was perhaps the most traumatic mass shooting in American history.

The shooting resulted in a wave of revulsion across the country and renewed calls for gun controls, some of which resulted in the passage of new laws governing gun ownership. This in turn led to a counter-effort.

On May 22, 2013, in response to the state of Maryland passing the Maryland State Firearms Act (MFSA) restricting the sale of different types of firearms, requiring their registration and limiting the size of magazines, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution calling the county a “Second Amendment Sanctuary County.”

The Carroll County resolution announced that the county would not “authorize or appropriate government funds, resources, employees, agencies, contractors, buildings, detention centers or offices for the purpose of enforcing any element of the MFSA that infringes on the right of people to keep and bear arms… .”

While Maryland’s Harford and Cecil counties also passed such resolutions, this was the first time the word “sanctuary” was used in such an official measure, according to one account. According to another, in 2018 it was Monroe County, Illinois that was the first to use “sanctuary.”

Since then, similar resolutions have been passed by states, counties and municipalities across the country. There was another wave of resolutions following the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre of Feb. 14, 2018. As of July 2021, about 1,200 local governments in 42 states had adopted such resolutions.

In Southwest Florida, Collier County passed a resolution declaring it would not “assist, support or condone” any infringement of the Second Amendment on Feb. 26, 2013 but did not use the word “sanctuary.” Lee County passed a resolution on March 25, 2013, DeSoto County declared itself a gun “haven” on Jan. 21, 2020, and Charlotte County declared itself a gun sanctuary county on May 11, 2021.

Second Amendment sanctuary states and counties as of 2021. Statewide sanctuaries are in blue, county sanctuaries are in green, both county and state sanctuaries are in purple. (Map. Wikimedia)

Anti-abortion sanctuaries

On June 22, 2019 anti-abortion activist and preacher Mark Lee Dickson convinced the town council of Waskom, Texas, population 2,189, to pass an ordinance creating a “sanctuary city for the unborn.”

(For a fuller account of Dickson, the anti-abortion sanctuary movement and Naples, Fla., see: “‘Sanctuary city for the unborn’ movement threatens Naples, Fla., economic recovery.”)

Since Waskom, 32 towns and cities have voted in anti-abortion ordinances, according to the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn website.

Of these, 29 are in Texas, of which the largest is Lubbock, population 278,831; two are in Nebraska (tiny Hayes Center, population 288 and Blue Hill, population 941); and one is in Ohio (Lebanon, population 20,529). Eight Texas cities are counted as “denying” an ordinance and the movement calls the state capital of Austin a “city of death” for its adamant opposition. The movement is aiming at 39 potential new sanctuary cities in Texas and one in Florida—Naples.

The movement continues its efforts, proclaiming that it is “Protecting our cities by outlawing abortion, one city at a time.”

Anti-federal sanctuaries

With the debate over pandemic masking and other health measures in 2020 and in the wake of President Donald Trump’s defeat and the failure of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, there was a new wave of “bill of rights sanctuary” efforts—essentially anti-federal sanctuaries—primarily in the southern United States.

These had their genesis in the gun sanctuary movement but went even further, back to the Posse Comitatus movement that began in the late 1960s. That movement held that local sheriffs were the highest ranking law enforcement officers in any county and no higher legal authority should be recognized. That, in turn, gave rise to a Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association founded in 2011 to get local sheriffs to uphold the Second Amendment by refusing to enforce any state or federal restrictions on gun ownership.

The premise of these ordinances is that the federal government, having fallen into hostile hands, is now going to try to violate rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights—mainly the Second Amendment. Under these ordinances, localities, primarily at the county level, refuse to cooperate with any federal actions they regard as unlawful.

Who would determine that the Bill of Rights was being violated, what exactly constitutes a violation and how it will be remedied is unclear.

By specifically calling on states and counties to “nullify” federal actions the movement harkens back to the pre-Civil War debate over “nullification,” when South Carolina politicians argued that they had the right to nullify federal laws with which they disagreed. In 1830 that idea was crushed by Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts in the Senate (who concluded with the memorable line: “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and indivisible!”) and President Andrew Jackson, a southerner, who notably declared in a dinner toast: “Our federal union! It must be preserved!”

The current movement has a number of drivers. Organizations include Gun Owners of America, a non-profit lobby founded in 1976, which “sees firearms ownership as a freedom issue.” Another is Oath Keepers, the extremist organization of current and former military and law enforcement personnel whose members participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection and are being prosecuted.

KrisAnne Hall (C-SPAN)

An activist and nullification evangelist based in northern Florida is KrisAnne Hall, who characterizes herself as a “constitutionalist.” She has associated with far right and white nationalist groups, providing legal justifications for extremist anti-government beliefs. In YouTube videos and speaking engagements Hall preaches a pre-Civil War interpretation of constitutional relations and actively promotes nullification.

Addressing people who would pass nullification ordinances, in an April 21, 2021 video Hall stated: “If [your] law does not state that ‘we will not enforce this law’ and ‘we will not allow the federal government to enforce these laws here;’ if your law does not contain that language, it is useless!” she argued.

“We’ve got states out there that are trying to walk the fence, trying to placate you with their ‘Second Amendment sanctuaries’ and they’re going to turn around and say, ‘OK, we’re not going to enforce these laws but the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] can come in and do it, the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] can come in and do it, DHS can come in and do it, whatever, the [Internal Revenue Service] can come in and do it. That’s not sanctuary, people, that’s setup. That’s enticement, that is entrapment, that is wrong.

“And so if your law does not include some kind of restriction and penalty for the federal government exercising those laws in your state, it is not a good law,” she insisted.

Hall came to Southwest Florida on April 24, 2021 to address the Republican Club of South Collier County, where she shared a stage with Dan Cook, a Naples-based far right activist, and Alfie Oakes, the grocer and owner of Seed to Table.

A nullification “Bill of Rights sanctuary” ordinance was put on the agenda of the Collier County Commission on June 22. It is due to be considered next Tuesday, July 13.

Analysis: Insurrection by other means

The anti-federal, anti-abortion sanctuary movement has remained largely under the media radar, spreading in rural areas among small towns that rarely get national attention. To most Americans it no doubt seems fringe, odd and often absurd, so it has long been ignored.

But it bears attention because it is an effort to subvert and, indeed, overthrow the authority of the federal government and replace it with—what? Its advocates want to treat the nation’s laws, Constitution and Bill of Rights like a buffet whose offerings they can pick and choose or ignore if they wish. But law doesn’t work that way and the only alternative seems armed anarchy.

The anti-federal sanctuarists (and you read that word correctly, for the first time here) can make the argument that the left (or in the usual formulation, the radical Democratic left) started the sanctuary movement first.

They have a point. But there are important differences between what we’ll call “social” sanctuaries and “nullifying” sanctuaries.

In the American political definition, no matter who asserts it, “sanctuary” is an effort to carve out an exemption or exception from federal law—which should be uniformly applied and enforced across the country.

The social sanctuaries—the Underground Railroad, Vietnam resistance, Central American refuges, DACA and migrant sanctuaries—were all illegal and were acknowledged as such. They were acts of civil disobedience in which the participants were aware they were breaking the law and could face the penalties. They did it nonetheless because they felt they were serving a higher moral cause.

The nullifying sanctuaries—the anti-abortion and anti-federal sanctuary movements—are attempts to cancel federal law, the Constitution and Bill of Rights through creation of what is essentially a counter-government where federal law does not apply.

When it comes to local governments the big difference between the anti-abortion and anti-federal sanctuary movements and their gun sanctuary predecessor is that they are trying to impose ordinances on their jurisdictions—rules with the force of law and penalties for violations. Previously, towns and counties passed resolutions, which expressed an opinion or sentiment and did not carry penalties.

By denying the jurisdiction of federal law, the nullifying sanctuary movements are actually practicing insurrection by other means.

By passing these ordinances, states, counties and municipalities are starting down a slippery slope whose logical end is the creation of a separate polity subject to its own laws and sovereignty. This is also known as insurrection, rebellion or secession. The ordinances may pay lip service to the Bill of Rights but in fact they are rejecting the United States Constitution with its Bill of Rights, all the other amendments and protections of the rule of law.

Americans have fought and died to prevent that kind of insurrection. Just because this movement is legalistic and non-violent doesn’t make it any less dangerous to the cohesion and indivisibility of the United States.

The battlefield for America’s future has moved from the walls of the Capitol building to the small towns and rural counties of its heartland but the stakes are no less high.

America has been here before. It has faced and overcome rebellion, nullification, secession and most recently insurrection. It now needs to overcome the threats to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights cloaked in the language and the trappings of sanctuary. The choice is between constitutional democracy and anarchy.

Anyone looking for a sanctuary for freedom and the rights of the individual need look no further than the United States itself and its Constitution. It’s the greatest sanctuary in history.

Now it’s up to every truly patriotic American citizen to ensure that it remains that way.


The Collier County Commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 13 at 9:00 am. Public petition speakers are limited to ten minutes and general address speakers to 3 minutes. The Commission Chambers and Commissioners’ offices are located on the third floor of the Administration Building at 3299 Tamiami Trail East, Suite 303, Naples, Fla.

Meetings are also aired live on Collier Television CTV and are available online via Video On Demand.

To reach commissioners:

Rick LoCastro

Andy Solis

Burt Saunders

Penny Taylor
Chair

William L. McDaniel, Jr.


To read more about past sanctuary movements:

What’s the history of sanctuary spaces and why do they matter? by Elizabeth Allen

The sanctuary movement: A brief history by Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser

Talk on the logic of sanctuary, given at Duke University by Elizabeth Bruening

How Trump’s war on sanctuary cities affected immigrants by Felipe de la Hoz

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

It’s not your imagination: There really is a MAGA migration to Florida

Gingrich move to Naples is just latest addition to rightist roster

A satirical map of the MAGA migration to the Sunshine State. (Art: Author)

May 17, 2021 by David Silverberg

Updated May 18 with current valuation of Sen. Rick Scott’s home.

If you had the impression that all the debris and detritus of the Trump years was drifting southward to Florida—you’d be right.

The latest move is by Newt and Callista Gingrich, who on May 3 purchased a property in Naples’ tony Quail West development and will be moving there permanently in September.

Newt and Callista Gingrich announce their Florida move on Twitter. (Photo: Twitter)

They’re just part of the Trumps, Trumpsters and assorted Trumpers migrating to the swampy warmth of Florida south of Interstate 4.

Of course, the real lodestar for all this is Donald Trump himself, the loser of the 2020 election, who retreated to his luxurious lair of Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach following his failed January 6th attempt to overturn the US government and cancel the election. Trump became a full-time Florida resident in September 2019 and officially tweeted the change on Nov. 1 of that year.

“…Despite the fact that I pay millions of dollars in city, state and local taxes each year, I have been treated very badly by the political leaders of both the city and state. Few have been treated worse,” he complained of New York. At the time he was under pressure from New York authorities investigating a variety of suspected misbehavior. (That pressure may turn into indictments any day now, his Florida residence notwithstanding.)

Along with the Former Guy himself came the family Trumps, who have settled along the east coast of the peninsula. Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner have purchased a lot for $32 million on Miami’s exclusive Indian Creek Island, known as the “Billionaires Bunker.”

Further north, Don Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, purchased two waterfront homes in Jupiter’s Admiral’s Cove, another exclusive high-end enclave. The main house, 492 Mariner Drive, listed for $11 million. Next door, Guilfoyle was planning to purchase a $9.5 million mansion for her family, according to The Palm Beach Post.

Marla Maples shows off her new Florida driver’s license, taking care to conceal her address. (Photo: Instagram)

It’s not only the current family coming south: Trump ex-spouse Marla Maples has settled in Miami, joining her daughter Tiffany who already resides there with her fiancée, Michael Boulos. In March, Marla posted a photo on Instagram of her coyly displaying a Florida driver’s license.

Interestingly, while Trump & Family settle into extravagant and expensive digs, lesser Trumpsters who served his campaign or administration are pleading poverty and penury, either because they’re out of the graces of the Orange One, or because they’re facing the wrath of law enforcement.

Fort Lauderdale is home to Roger Stone, political trickster, lobbyist and consultant. Stone was arrested there on Jan. 25, 2019 and charged with witness tampering, obstructing an official proceeding, and five counts of making false statements during Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian collusion. He was convicted of seven felonies and sentenced to 40 months in prison. Trump first commuted his sentence and then pardoned him altogether just before leaving office. However, this past April 16, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sued Stone for $2 million in back taxes.

Stone pleaded poverty: “The Internal Revenue Service is well aware of the fact that my three-year battle for freedom against the corrupted Mueller investigation has left me destitute,” Stone told The Associated Press. “They’re well aware that I have no assets and that their lawsuit is politically motivated. It’s particularly interesting that my tax attorneys were not told of this action, filed at close of business on a Friday. The American people will learn, in court, that I am on the verge of bankruptcy and that there are no assets for the government to take.”

That’s not the IRS view, which holds that Stone and his wife used a commercial front to “shield their personal income from enforced collection” and support a “lavish lifestyle.”

According to the IRS filing: “Despite notice and demand for payment, Roger and Nydia Stone have failed and refused to pay the entire amount of the liabilities.”

The drama will play out in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom over the coming months.

Also in Fort Lauderdale, Brad Parscale, who touts himself as “an advertising legend,” served as Trump’s campaign manager for 897 days before a major Trump rally he organized in June 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma failed spectacularly.

Brad Parscale’s former Ft. Lauderdale home. (Photo: Miami MLS)

During his Trump time, Parscale was riding high with a salary of $15,000 a month but with seeming use of much more. Under Parscale Properties LLC, he invested in real estate around Fort Lauderdale including a $2.4 million waterfront home for himself. Over the course of a few months he also purchased $300,000 in luxury cars.

But apparently he wasn’t feeling well after his fall from grace. On Sept. 27, 2020 his girlfriend called Fort Lauderdale police to say that he was waving a gun and threatening both her and himself. Parscale’s takedown by police in his driveway was videotaped and widely broadcast. He sold his main house shortly after his arrest and the following day listed a townhome he also owned.

In March 2021, Pascale announced that he had formed a new super political action committee (PAC) called American Greatness PAC and a non-profit American Greatness Fund, which promotes what it calls the Election Integrity Alliance to “unite groups and efforts across the nation focused on combating election fraud.” It will fund state legislators and activists “on challenges to free and fair elections.”

Donors will no doubt be reassured by Parscale’s proven record of handling money in the past.

The other side of Alligator Alley

In an essay published in The Washington Post this past January, humorist Dave Barry put Florida’s east and west coasts into perspective:

“…Miami, where I live, is directly across the Everglades from Naples, only about 100 miles as the crow flies, which the crow had better do because if it lands it will be eaten by a Burmese python,” he wrote. “But despite their proximity, the two cities, because of unfortunate stereotypes, view each other negatively. Miami views Naples as a boring, retiree-infested backwater where the height of wild nightlife is ordering a second round of breadsticks at the Olive Garden. Naples views Miami as an insane urban hellscape whose residents celebrate every occasion, including Valentine’s Day, with gunfire.

“For the record, both of these unfortunate stereotypes are 100 percent accurate.”

Perhaps it was this boringness—or viewed another way, the peace and quiet—of the Gulf coast that first drew Indiana native Mike Pence to Sanibel Island. During his time as Trump’s vice president, Pence would occasionally vacation at an undisclosed location there. Whether his trips continue in the future or he settles there permanently, only Pence himself knows.

For four years Pence was an unfailingly loyal and servile wingman to Donald Trump—who rewarded him by inciting a murderous mob to try to lynch him on Jan. 6.

Also on the Gulf coast is the longtime home of former Florida governor and current senator Rick Scott, whose beachfront home at 3150 Gordon Dr., Naples, is estimated to be worth over $30 million as it awaits climate change-driven sea level rise to wash it into the Gulf.

Naples, with a picturesque downtown and beautiful beaches, has been a minor haven for right-wing pundits and performers for some time.

Fox News commentator Sean Hannity bought a $4.75 million penthouse in a luxury high-rise condo called Moraya Bay in 2009. It was one element of his real estate empire that reportedly includes as many as 900 properties around the country. Hannity sold that penthouse for $5.7 million in December 2020 and has reportedly moved on to Florida’s east coast.

Among the Fox news readers, Brett Baier also has a condo in Naples, possibly in Moraya Bay.

Also in Naples, rocker Ted Nugent, better known at this point for his extreme political views than his music, has long been an occasional seasonal resident. Nugent announced on April 19 that he had contracted COVID-19 a week after performing at Seed to Table, a defiantly COVID-denying, anti-masking market in North Naples.

None of these celebrities made much of an impression on the local community, either showing up on the streets, in shops or in the pages of slick hometown lifestyle magazines as charitable donors.

To the north of Sanibel, Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson occasionally visits the $2.9 million, 3,000-square-foot plus, single-level modernist home he purchased in 2020 on Gasparilla Island, one of the Gulf shore’s many islands.

Newt and Callista Gingrich are the latest additions to the Gulf shore, scheduled to move permanently to Naples in September.

Newt, of course, was Speaker of the US House of Representatives from 1995 until he was ousted in 1999. Callista is just back from a stint as US ambassador to the Vatican’s Holy See.

Her presence will give Naples two former Vatican ambassadors, given the presence of Francis Rooney, who served in that capacity from 2005 to 2008 before representing the district in Congress from 2016 to 2020.

Rooney called Southwest Florida “the redder than red region” in a 2016 speech at the Collier County Fairgrounds when he introduced then-candidate Donald Trump. While he later broke with Trump and Trumpism, he was certainly right in his characterization.

To his credit, for all his ideological loyalty, Gingrich vehemently denounced the Jan. 6 insurrection in no uncertain terms:

“I was furious. I am furious. Every person who broke into the Capitol has to be arrested and has to be prosecuted,” said Gingrich in a Fox News interview the day after the riot. “This is the center of freedom on the whole planet. It’s a symbol for everybody. And what happened yesterday was utterly, totally inexcusable. People should be locked up and punished. And I’m delighted that they’re increasing the preparations for the inaugural because we have to make absolutely certain nothing like this happens again. But as a former House member as well, as you point out, former speaker, I found it enraging that people who clearly are not patriots — these are people are destructive barbarians and they are frankly criminals, and they should be treated that way and locked up. And I’m very proud of the Capitol Police, that they clearly needed a lot more reinforcements yesterday.”

This is not to say that Gingrich hasn’t pounded the Trumpist drum for a long time. But at least he drew the line at insurrection.

Someone who never broke with the Big Lie and in fact swore actual allegiance to the absurd QAnon conspiracy theory is Michael Flynn. He served 24 days as Trump’s national security advisor in 2017 before being dismissed after lying to Pence about his contacts with the Russians. He pleaded guilty to one felony count of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, then withdrew his guilty plea. He was pardoned by Trump in December 2020.

On April 9 Flynn and his wife Lori closed on a home in the Boca Royale Golf and Country Club in Englewood. It’s a modest, 2,236-square foot single family home valued at $543,005 with three bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms that backs onto a lake.


Sidebar: Disappearing beaches

The Moraya Bay condo in North Naples pushes beachgoers into the Gulf using its beach chairs as barriers in March 2021. (Photo: Author)

In keeping with Trump’s “Me First” philosophy, Naples’ beachfront condos and hotels are now trying to drive Floridians off the sands of the area’s beaches.

Florida law allows property owners to possess beaches up to the “mean high tide line”—i.e., the dry sand up to the water. For the most part, the beaches are sufficiently broad that in the past there was room for all and people could walk and pitch their umbrellas where they liked.

But the high-end beachfront resorts and condos sell themselves as having exclusive, private beaches. They’re prohibited from putting up clear barriers like traffic cones to keep people off the sand. Instead, they put up barriers of beach chairs right to the water’s edge. Beachgoers are allowed on the dry sand as long as they keep walking but if they sit down they’re shooed away by security guards. Otherwise, everyday Floridians had better stay in the water—not exactly where people can camp out to enjoy a day at the beach.

The leader in this movement to appropriate the beaches is the Moraya Bay condo in North Naples, once home to Hannity. Further south, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the town’s Vanderbilt Beach has moved with increasing aggressiveness to keep plebeians off its sands. Once upon a time, the Ritz-Carlton was tolerant and welcoming but no more. The condos’ movement against beachgoers is picking up steam, both with other property owners and with state legislators like the area’s state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-28-Naples) who in 2018 introduced legislation to make it more difficult for municipalities to claim beaches for all residents.

Naples, which prizes its beaches as its main tourist attraction, is headed toward a time when all but a small strip of wet sand will be off-limits to anyone other than the extremely well-heeled. It’s the logical result of Trumpism on the ground—literally.


It’s the law

“My parents live in Florida now,” observed comedian Jerry Seinfeld. “They moved there last year. They didn’t want to move to Florida, but they’re in their 60s, and that’s the law.”

Seinfeld continued: “You know how it works. They got the leisure police. They pull up in front of the old people’s house with the golf cart, jump out: ‘Let’s go, Pop! White belt, white pants, white shoes! Get in the back! Drop the snow shovel! Right there! Drop it!’”

As it is for normal people, so it is for Trump and his Trumpsters. Perhaps Seinfeld’s Florida must-move law was the only law Trump ever obeyed—and even then he was tardy, being well past 60 when he took Florida residency in 2019. Flynn, Stone and the Gingriches are all past 60 and all coming to Florida to—presumably—retire.

Being under 60, the family—Ivanka, Jared, Don Jr., and Tiffany—have moved because that’s simply the way of the world: where Daddy goes, so they go all.

As for the rest of the Tumpers, pundits and assorted minions of all ages, in addition to the extreme politics, they’re attracted to the beaches, the heat and the low taxes like everyone else.

Politically, though, these are not just ordinary immigrants. Their presence along with their money, a Trumpist governor and a Republican legislature incline Florida to indeed become Florumpia—a state governed in true Trump fashion where voting is suppressed, dissent is crushed, corruption is pervasive, lawbreaking is excused, lying is instinctive, bankruptcy always looms and fantasy prevails.

In Florida, all the world will be able to see what a second Trump administration would have looked like—and could look like again if Trump and Trumpism are able to triumph in future elections at any level.

But then, Florida has always attracted delusional dreamers and fevered fantasists. Why should Trump be any different?

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Publix: Where politics bring no pleasure

An in-depth look and analysis of the political past, present and future of the family and the franchise

A typical Publix supermarket near Jacksonville, Fla. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

April 15, 2021 by David Silverberg

Floridians know Publix as a grocery store and a giant chain of supermarkets—but increasingly they’re coming to know it as a political force.

That’s because Publix’s political involvement keeps popping into the public spotlight in embarrassing and usually not terribly flattering ways.

Just how much of a political force is Publix in Florida and nationally?  What is the nature of its political involvement and influence? What policies does it seek to influence or implement? Does it have an ideological agenda? And where is it headed?

Birth of a behemoth

George Jenkins, 1930

According to its official facts and figures, Publix was founded in 1930 in Winter Haven, Florida, by George Jenkins, who implemented a variety of new techniques and practices in his grocery business. In 1940 he mortgaged an orange grove he owned to open a state-of-the-art “food palace” that became a destination supermarket. Unable to physically expand during the Second World War because of construction restraints, he began buying other chains. After the war, Publix boomed with the rest of the economy—and with Florida.

Jenkins had seven children: Howard, David, Kenneth, Delores, Carol (now Barnett), Nancy and Julie (now Fancelli). He died in 1996 at age 88.

The first Publix location, taken in 2014. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Today Publix is a corporate behemoth with 1,270 stores in seven southeastern states. Of these, Florida has by far the largest number: 818. Georgia follows with 192 stores, then Alabama (80), South Carolina (63), North Carolina (49), Tennessee (49) and Virginia (19). The stores are supported by 11 manufacturing facilities and nine distribution centers. The entire corporation is headquartered in Lakeland, Fla.

Publix claims to be the largest employee-owned company in the United States and one of the 10 largest-volume supermarket chains in the country. It employs over 225,000 people and in 2019 had $38.1 billion in sales.

The Publix headquarters in Lakeland, Fla., 2012. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/John O’Neill)

Clearly, a corporation of this size interacts with government at all levels, handling everything from permitting to inspections to regulation to taxation and beyond. With interests in seven states, that interaction includes legislation and elections, with financial support to a wide variety of candidates.

Any corporation with 225,000 employees, huge economic clout, interaction with thousands of vendors and millions of shoppers on a daily basis is going to have immense influence, if not outright formal government power.

The public is already aware of Publix’s political power. In May, 2018 following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., protesters led by student David Hogg lay down in supermarket aisles to oppose donations to Adam Putnam, a Republican gubernatorial candidate and ardent National Rifle Association supporter. In response, Publix announced that was suspending its political contributions—at least for a while.

However, the most recent controversies are of a different nature and understanding them requires awareness of the distinction between the corporation and the family consisting of the descendants of George Jenkins.

The May 25, 2018 protest by Parkland students in Coral Springs, Fla., against Publix donations to gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam. As a result of the protest Publix immediately announced that it was suspending political contributions for a year. (Image: CBS4 Miami)

All in the family

Nationally, Publix exerts its influence by donating to candidates through its Publix Super Markets, Inc. Associates Political Action Committee (PAC). It does this through the legal mechanisms and procedures administered by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and state election finance bodies.

However, members of the Jenkins family can donate to whatever causes they wish and as long as they do not involve candidate campaigns, they are free from campaign finance restraints. Although they may not be acting with the knowledge or approval of the Publix corporation, they are usually linked to Publix if their names make the news.

On Jan. 30, the Wall Street Journal revealed that daughter Julie Jenkins Fancelli contributed $300,000 to support the “Save America” rally that turned into the riotous attack on the US Capitol building.

Julie Jenkins Fancelli

The Publix corporation was quick to distance itself from Fancelli’s contribution, issuing a tweet that day stating: “Mrs. Fancelli is not an employee of Publix Super Markets, and is neither involved in our business operations, nor does she represent the company in any way. We cannot comment on Mrs. Fancelli’s actions.

“The violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a national tragedy. The deplorable actions that occurred that day do not represent the values, work or opinions of Publix Super Markets.”

The rally contribution was a personal donation by Fancelli, who has long been active in conservative Republican politics, according to OpenSecrets.org of the Center for Responsive Politics. According to that source, Fancelli was the 113th largest individual donor nationally during the 2020 election cycle, contributing $1,027,600 to Republicans.

In past elections, according to the FEC, she contributed to the 2012 presidential campaign of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). She also contributed to the US Senate campaigns of Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, the Republican National Committee and Republican organizations in Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Idaho and Vermont.

According to The Ledger newspaper based Lakeland, in 2020 Fancelli contributed $171,300 to a committee supporting President Donald Trump and her son, Gregory Fancelli, contributed $11,200 to a Trump-supporting committee.

Fancelli is not the only progeny of George Jenkins to make political contributions.

David Jenkins, the youngest son, who spent most of his adult life in San Francisco away from the family business, also contributed during the 2020 cycle—but his were perhaps obligatory $5 contributions to the official Publix PAC.

By contrast, daughter Carol Jenkins Barnett was deeply involved in the 2020 Georgia campaigns of Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Purdue for the US Senate. The Carol Jenkins Barnett Family Trust gave $100,000 to a super PAC called the Keep America America Action Fund. The super PAC could spend unlimited amounts of money on issues rather than candidates and it pushed hard for a Republican victory in the Jan. 5 Georgia runoff elections. Barnett also contributed $100,000 in her own name to the Georgia Senate Battleground Fund, $10,000 to Perdue Victory Inc., $2,800 to the Perdue for Senate campaign and the same amount to the National Republican Senate Committee.

In North Carolina she contributed $2,800 to the re-election campaign of Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).

Barnett had better luck in North Carolina than in Georgia: Tillis kept his seat while Loeffler and Purdue were defeated.

But the FEC filings only cover federal races. Jenkins family members and in-laws have contributed to numerous other state races and political causes. (More on that below.)

Publix PAC

Publix PAC’s political contributions by party. (Chart: Open Secrets)

The Publix PAC, in contrast to the family, is a structured, regulated, institutional organization that donates to candidates to advance the company’s interests, even if family members in management have a disproportionate say in its decisionmaking. (For example, Howard Jenkins served as chief executive officer of Publix from 1990 to 2001.)

“The Publix PAC is nonpartisan, and we strive to support pro-business candidates that foster free market principles,” Maria Brous, Publix’s director of communications, told the Ledger in a 2016 article. “Members of the Publix PAC meet and decide how to disperse its money.”

The 2018 Parkland shooting protests in Publix supermarkets forced a re-think of Publix PAC’s donations and it suspended them for a year. When they resumed in 2019 they were more balanced and bipartisan.

A review of 2020 election cycle FEC filings and a search of OpenSecrets.org reveal disciplined, commerce-motivated donations to a wide variety of candidates, PACs and partisan political organizations. The Republican and Democratic House and Senate campaign committees each received equal amounts of $30,000.

In the 2020 election cycle, the PAC spent a total of $531,700, of which $377,500 went to candidate campaigns (as opposed to going to other PACs or national party organizations).

While it contributed to candidates on both sides of the aisle, the giving was not equal: $237,000 or 62.78 percent went to Republicans while $140,500 or 37.22 percent went to Democrats.

The same rough percentage held true for Publix PAC’s donations to 88 House candidates, with giving split in favor of Republicans by 56.63 percent to 43.37 percent for Democrats. When it came to Senate candidates, though, the percentages were much more lopsided: in 24 Senate races, Publix PAC favored Republicans by 84.43 percent to 15.57 percent for Democrats.

Overall, the patterns of Publix PAC’s contributions during the 2020 cycle were fairly typical for a large corporation seeking to advance its commercial interests and maintain its influence in areas critical to its success. Its giving was selective and strategic, with what appear to be long-term goals in mind. It overwhelmingly favored incumbents rather than challengers or newcomers. It largely remained mainstream and there were no contributions to extremists like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-14-Ga.) or Lauren Boebert (R-3-Colo.). (It will be interesting to see if this pattern holds now that they’re incumbents.)

It is clear that both the family and the PAC had a deep stake in Georgia’s Senate election and contributed extensively to Loeffler and Perdue.

Interestingly, the PAC also made a heavy investment in North Carolina, where the chain is expanding, and gave heavily in state-level races.

Also, as noted previously, there is no evidence of direct investment in President Donald Trump’s campaign by the PAC, at least not to organizations bearing his name.

60 minutes of misery

The December Publix contributions to Friends of Ron DeSantis. (Image: 60 Minutes)

In December 2020 Publix made four $25,000 contributions to the Friends of Ron DeSantis committee, two on Dec. 7 and two on Dec. 31.

It was an unusual contribution, coming as it did between the 2020 election and long before the 2022 Florida gubernatorial election. Also, it is not clear whether the contributions came from the PAC or the company itself.

When Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced on Jan. 5 that Publix supermarkets would be distributing COVID vaccines, politicos and the media made an immediate connection to the political contributions.

The timing aroused suspicions. The law draws a fine line between political contributions for broad issues and individual candidate campaigns versus direct payments in return for specific official actions; in other words, a quid pro quo. The latter constitutes bribery.

In a Jan. 14 report on Spectrum News 13 in Orlando, Brous, the Publix publicist, denied that there had been any quid pro quo

Saying that while the company did not discuss political contributions, she stated it was “important that I clarify that the connection being implied is absolutely incorrect.

“As a Florida-based company with more than 750 pharmacies throughout the state, Publix is well-positioned to serve as a partner in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to Florida’s residents,” Brous wrote in an e-mail to reporter Pete Reinwald. “Our large footprint, infrastructure and distribution network across the state, as well as our experience with administering the flu vaccine (and other vaccines) and online scheduling technology, gives us the capability to efficiently deploy the vaccine. That expertise is critically needed at this time.”

DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice was equally adamant that there had been no quid pro quo: “the insinuation” of a connection between the contribution and the Publix vaccination program “is baseless and ridiculous,” she told the station.

But, as is said in the news trade, the story had “legs.” It just wouldn’t go away.

Combined with the fits and starts and controversies over the rest of Florida’s vaccine distribution, the Publix donation eventually caught the attention of CBS’ venerable news show, “60 Minutes.”

On April 5, “60 Minutes” reported on the Florida vaccine rollout in a segment titled “A Fair Shot,” produced by Oriana Zill de Granados and presented by correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi.

The segment looked at the totality of Florida’s vaccine distribution, focusing on its confusion and inequities. In due course it came to the Publix contributions.

“So why did the governor choose Publix?” asked Alfonsi. “Campaign finance reports obtained by 60 Minutes show that weeks before the governor’s announcement, Publix donated $100,000 to his political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis.  

“Julie Jenkins Fancelli, heiress to the Publix fortune, has given $55,000 to the governor’s PAC in the past. And in November, Fancelli’s brother-in-law, Hoyt R. Barnett, a retired Publix executive, donated $25,000. 

“Publix did not respond to our request for comment about the donations. 

“Governor DeSantis is up for re-election next year.”

Alfonsi interviewed state Rep. Omari Hardy (D-88-Palm Beach).

“I imagine Governor DeSantis’s office would say, ‘Look, we privatized the rollout because it’s more efficient and it works better,’” she said.

“It hasn’t worked better for people of color,” responded Hardy. “Before, I could call the public health director. She would answer my calls. But now if I want to get my constituents information about how to get this vaccine I have to call a lobbyist from Publix? That makes no sense. They’re not accountable to the public.”

Alfonsi pointed out that “Distributing vaccines is lucrative. Under federal guidelines, Publix, like any other private company, can charge Medicare $40 a shot to administer the vaccine.” 

DeSantis vehemently denied that Publix was selected based on its political contributions when confronted directly by Alfonsi at a press conference near Orlando.

“Publix, as you know, donated $100,000 to your campaign,” she said. “And then you rewarded them with the exclusive rights to distribute the vaccination in Palm Beach County.”

“So, first of all, that—what you’re saying is wrong,” responded DeSantis. “That’s—“

“How is that not pay-to-play?” she asked.

DeSantis continued: “—that—that’s a fake narrative. I met with the county mayor. I met with the administrator. I met with all the folks in Palm Beach County and I said, ‘Here’s some of the options. We can do more drive-thru sites. We can give more to hospitals. We can do the Publix.’ And they said, ‘We think that would be the easiest thing for our residents.’”

While Publix did not respond to “60 Minutes’” questions when it was doing its research, it did provide a statement after the story appeared:

“The irresponsible suggestion that there was a connection between campaign contributions made to Governor DeSantis and our willingness to join other pharmacies in support of the state’s vaccine distribution efforts is absolutely false and offensive. We are proud of our pharmacy associates for administering more than 1.5 million doses of vaccine to date and for joining other retailers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia to do our part to help our communities emerge from the pandemic.”

Publix Super Markets

DeSantis and his administration have continued to vehemently deny that there was any quid pro quo. Jared Moskowitz, Florida’s emergency management director, emphatically denied the premise of the story and in a tweet said he told “60 Minutes” it was “bullshit.”

“I said this before and I’ll say it again,” he stated in another tweet. “[Publix] was recommended by [Florida Division of Emergency Management] and [Florida Department of Public Health] as the other pharmacies were not ready to start. Period! Full Stop! No one from the Governor’s office suggested Publix. It’s just absolute malarkey,”

The story came under fire from all sides, including from Democrats and fellow journalists. Florida newspaper editorials, right-wing media and even publications and news outlets overseas condemned it as “innuendo,” a “smear,” and “false.” Floridians finally had something to unite them.

For its part, “60 Minutes” issued a lengthy statement and explanation saying that it did its research and stood by its story.  

What was undeniable regardless of the substance of the story was that the political Publix had emerged into the national spotlight.


On Monday, April 12, The Paradise Progressive, as part of the research and due diligence for this article, reached out by e-mail to Maria Brous, Publix communications director, and Allison Penn, treasurer of the Publix PAC, asking the following questions:

  • How much of a political force is Publix in Florida and nationally?  
  • What is the nature of its political involvement and influence? 
  • What policies does it seek to influence or implement?
  • Does it have an ideological agenda and mission? 

Regarding the “60 Minutes” report, the e-mail posed the following questions:

  • What was the reason that Publix contributed $100,000 to the DeSantis campaign fund in December 2020?
  • Why were the contributions made at that particular time (between elections)?
  • Why were they made in those particular amounts?
  • Were the contributions made at the request of the DeSantis campaign committee or at the initiative of Publix?

To date, no acknowledgment or response has been received. None is expected.


Analysis: Publix in the public space

Pay-for-play?

One thing that must be said about the Publix contributions to Friends of Ron DeSantis: no one is covered in glory about this; not the journalism and not the response, which seemed clumsy and woefully inept.

How could any sentient observer fail to draw parallels between political donations made one month before a major announcement like the one of the vaccine rollouts at Publix supermarkets? How dense would people have to be not to conclude—however erroneously—that there was a relationship? This is what is known in political slang as “bad optics”—or in this case, spectacularly bad optics.

But for its part, “60 Minutes” failed to produce a smoking gun—or in this instance a smoking e-mail or a smoking source—that could definitively nail down a quid pro quo. It was as though they connected all the dots of a puzzle but just couldn’t draw the one line that finally completed the picture.

While the text of the segment was very careful in its presentation, its context was, as its critics charge, full of insinuation and implication rather than factual confirmation. If it had been less emphatic in its allegations it would have sacrificed its emotional impact but would have been more accurate.

This has given DeSantis the chance to play the part of the injured party and continue a Trumplike crusade against the media.

“I know corporate media thinks that they can just run over people,” DeSantis announced after the story aired. “You ain’t running over this governor. I’m punching back and I’m going to continue to do it until these smear merchants are held accountable.” He added, “That’s why nobody trusts corporate media. They are a disaster in what they are doing. They knew what they were doing was a lie.”

But DeSantis himself is hardly a paragon of truth and virtue. He has followed a Trumpist playbook throughout his governorship. While that approach may please hard-core, right-wing voters, as it did for Donald Trump, it also leads to questions about his own veracity and truthfulness in everything from the state of the pandemic, to the numbers of infections, to the distribution of vaccines. If he had a reputation for principle and probity, his protests would have more credibility. But that’s not a hallmark of his governance and his words of defiance sound like they came straight out of Donald Trump’s mouth.

As for Publix, it may have a policy against discussing political contributions but in this instance it badly needed to explain why these particular contributions were made at this particular time. Had its spokespeople done so, Publix might have at least made clear that there was no quid pro quo. To date, there has been no explanation of these contributions, assuming that they were made independently of any gubernatorial action—and Publix’s blanket denial, while impassioned, has been less effective than it might otherwise have been.

(One can only speculate that the contributions were made at the very end of the year to meet some tax or regulatory deadline or pump up the DeSantis campaign going into 2021.)

The “60 Minutes” report may be a blow to DeSantis and Publix but it’s not the main story. In fact, it’s only a sideshow.

The disappearing middle

Publix presents itself as a grocery and a supermarket. It certainly is that—but it is now also a political player and like it or not, it is increasingly being judged by political criteria and not just by the groceries it sells.

In days gone by, companies that wanted to be politically active but not offend large numbers of retail customers made their political preferences known through discreet financial contributions to favored causes and candidates. In a larger sense, they operated in an environment that treated political perspectives as intellectual differences of opinion that could be discussed and debated and reasonably resolved in a constitutional framework. They could work their political influence without losing consumer loyalty, damaging their brands or breaking the law.

This is what Donald Trump destroyed with his absolutism and zero-sum approach. He always judged the world as either pro or anti-Trump and treated every political conflict as an absolute win or an absolute loss. When he was declared the loser of the 2020 election he incited an insurrection to negate those results and criminally attempted to destroy the legislative branch of the United States government.

For corporations this approach eliminated the reasonable middle ground they used to be able to occupy. It has also eliminated their discreet application of influence. It is particularly hard on a large, consumer-based, center-right company like Publix that fit into a comfortable, bipartisan, pro-business middle ground.

That middle ground is now gone; Donald Trump shattered it.

Even with Trump out of office, the Trumpist zero-sum approach lingers. It can be seen in Georgia, where Republicans on the losing side of the 2020 election rewrote voting rules to suppress voting and with it, any possible future Democratic victories. That has put Georgia-based companies in a difficult spot and companies like Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines and Major League Baseball have taken highly publicized actions to express their disapproval.

Publix is in a particularly tough spot in the Peach State: it can’t just up and leave like Major League Baseball did, even if it so wished and it would be unwise for it to endorse suppression of democracy. Its Georgian stores and facilities are a major part of its business and it has to depend on consumer goodwill from all segments of society and political persuasions. At the same time both the company and the family were deeply involved in promoting a different outcome than they got in the runoff election, so the company’s political preferences are obvious to all. Both PAC and family have sensibly refrained from publicly expressing an opinion on the voter suppression law and no one, to this author’s ability to determine, is demanding that Publix take sides—yet.

Raising awareness and drawing distinctions

After the Fancelli donation to the Trump rally came to light there were some calls for a boycott of Publix stores in Florida but the talk has not amounted to anything to date. It did, however, throw into high relief the differences between the family and the PAC.

While the distinction between individual or family political activities and Publix PAC and corporate activities is very clear in legal and constitutional terms, it is not clear in the popular mind or in the media. When Fancelli’s personal donation was made public it was lumped together with the Publix corporation as was her and Hoyt Barnett’s contributions to DeSantis.

Two realities govern Publix’s politics. One is the distinction between the family and the corporation. This is especially important given that Publix is an employee-owned corporation, so economic measures like boycotts against the company hurt employees and employee-owners at the lowest rungs of the organization. If activists dislike a Publix action or position, they have to be very certain whether the action was taken by a family member as an individual or the company as a corporate entity. The same goes for future media coverage.

Secondly, in the past, outside of Lakeland, neither the media nor the public was paying particular attention to the family’s donations or activities. However, with the Trumpist hyper-politicization of all American life, people are doing so now. To the degree that Florida has a royal family the Jenkins family is it and like any royal family the behavior of one member affects the standing and perception of the institution as a whole. Now both the Jenkins and the PAC are in the national political spotlight—and staying there.

The future of Publix politics

For the sake of political shorthand the Publix corporation as an institution can be characterized as a Republican business establishment of the center-right. By and large the family can be characterized as hard-right Republican with Fancelli standing out as the family Trumper.

In a Florida context, both the family and the company are Republican pro-DeSantis.

In a Georgia context, the family is extremely conservative Republican. What else is one to make of a donation to an organization called “Keep America America?” (As opposed to what?)

There is no doubt that in doing what it really does—providing food, products and services to the public—Publix is one of the best supermarket chains in the country. It is by all accounts and observation a well-managed, well-organized, effective, conscientious institution that makes a real—and in the case of vaccines—vital contribution to the health and welfare of the communities where it operates.

Of necessity it has been involved in politics and when involved, regardless of what one thinks of its political orientation, it participated in a legal, responsible, constitutional way. After its 2018 pause, as a corporation its goals appear to be primarily commercial rather than ideological.

Will it stay that way? Only time will tell but it would be a wise course to follow.

As a political player Publix will continue having to ride political pressures and cope with tough stories and embarrassing incidents that potentially interfere with its core mission of providing food to the public. These are likely to multiply and intensify with time.

Publix is unlikely to ever go back to being just a supermarket again. In the future, shopping there may be a pleasure—but it will not be a carefree one.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Florida voter suppression bill comes before state Senate hearing; Floridians can oppose it now

A bill in the Florida Senate could cripple mail-in voting and add unwanted expenses to county budgets. (Photo: Author)

March 9, 2021 by David Silverberg

The most significant bill suppressing voting in Florida is scheduled for committee consideration tomorrow, March 10—and Florida residents can weigh in with their opposition.

Senate Bill 90 would require voters seeking to vote by mail to renew their mail-in request every year in the calendar year of the election rather than the current two years. That means that voters seeking a mail-in ballot for the 2022 election would have to wait until next year to request it.

Introduced on Feb. 3 by state Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-12-Sumter County), the bill has already been approved by the Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.

The Florida Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee, has scheduled a hearing on it for tomorrow.

While the bill is ostensibly intended to prevent voter fraud, it has been denounced by county election supervisors, who worry that it will add unnecessary financial burdens to their counties.

The Miami Herald, editorialized that, “While not solving any real problems, it would force supervisors of elections to scramble to comply and notify voters, costing counties hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Further, it “smacks of a partisan attempt to confuse voters and catch them off guard in next year’s election.”

Florida Democrats have denounced the bill.

“Why do Florida Republicans want to limit vote by mail access? Well it all comes down to who has access to the franchise,” Marcus Dixon, Florida Democratic Party Executive Director told News4 in Jacksonville. “So even though the vote by mail system worked well here in Florida this past election, any time too many people have easy access to the ballot box, Republicans feel like they need to change the rules.”

Manny Diaz, Florida Democratic Party Chair, agreed. “This is not an issue of Republicans versus Democrats, but instead an issue of Republicans versus democracy,” Diaz said. “Florida Republicans keep showing us that when given a choice between defending the rights of voters, or suppressing voter access, disturbingly they will all too gladly suppress, harm and sacrifice our most sacred Constitutional right, on the altar of preserving power for the sake of power.”

Comment: What you can do

Florida residents can weigh in on this issue before, during and after it comes up for a hearing in the Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee.

They can contact their state senators and urge them to oppose it.

To find your senator, go to Find Your Legislators and enter your address. Your senator will appear along with a button to e-mail that senator. Tell your senator to oppose SB 90 and keep the mail-in voting provision the way it functioned in 2020.

The members of the Government Oversight and Accountability Committee are:

Chair:

Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Estero)

Vice Chair:

Sen. Joe Gruters (R-23-Sarasota)

Members:

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Secession, sedition and real estate: Rush Limbaugh’s Florida legacy

Rush Limbaugh ponders secession, Dec. 9, 2020. (Image: YouTube)

Feb. 19, 2021 by David Silverberg

In his departure from this world, Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio commentator who died Wednesday, Feb. 17 at age 70, bequeathed Florida two things: his $50 million mansion in Palm Beach (which presumably goes to his wife Kathryn) and the idea of Florida seceding from the union.

No doubt Kathryn will enjoy the 34,000-square foot, seven-bedroom, 12-bath palace with pool, putting green and private beach on two oceanfront acres.

Limbaugh’s Palm Beach home. (Photo: Zillow)

But for the state that he called home since 1996 his most recent legacy was his floating the idea of secession from a United States presided over by Joe Biden. It was an idea that found receptivity among numerous Florida Republicans. (See: “No need to secede: Welcome to Florumpia!”)

Limbaugh did not specifically call for Florida to secede: he raised the idea of secession in general on Dec. 9, 2020 when a caller to his radio show asked if conservatives could ever win over Democratic cities in northern states. Limbaugh interpreted this as asking whether they could ever be won over culturally, rather than electorally.

Limbaugh said he thought the big challenge was winning over the culture rather than the votes.

“I thought you were asking me something else when you said, ‘Can we win?’” said Limbaugh to the caller. “I thought you meant: ‘Can we win the culture, can we dominate the culture?’

“I actually think that we’re trending toward secession,” he said.

“I see more and more people asking what in the world do we have in common with the people who live in, say, New York? What is there that makes us believe that there is enough of us there to even have a chance at winning New York? Especially if you’re talking about votes.”

He continued: “I see a lot of bloggers—I can’t think of names right now—a lot of bloggers have written extensively about how distant and separated and how much more separated our culture is becoming politically and that it can’t go on this way. There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs. 

“We can’t be in this dire a conflict without something giving somewhere along the way. And I know that there’s a sizable and growing sentiment for people who believe that that is where we’re headed, whether we want to or not—whether we want to go there or not,” he said. “I myself haven’t made up my mind. I still haven’t given up the idea that we are the majority and that all we have to do is find a way to unite and win.”

Limbaugh said all this when a lawsuit by the state of Texas and 17 other states—including Florida—was before the Supreme Court, seeking to overturn the election results in four key states. It was five days before the Electoral College was going to cast its votes confirming Joe Biden’s victory. Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud were threadbare, rejected by every court where they’d been heard and seemed unlikely to sway the Supreme Court but were nonetheless being loudly propagated by the president and his followers.

Limbaugh made many outrageous and extreme pronouncements during his 54-year radio career. While his constant and deliberately provocative statements had somewhat depleted the pool of available outrage, reference to secession brought more than the usual opposition and blowback.

“I think talk of secession is treason, Martha, I want to be very clear,” fellow conservative pundit Geraldo Rivera told Fox News host Martha MacCallum the next day. “That talk is reckless. It’s irresponsible.”

It was on the 11th that the Supreme Court issued its ruling dismissing the Texas lawsuit. References to secession spiked, especially in Texas where the state Republican chairman, Allen West, said “Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the Constitution.” 

But that was also the day that Limbaugh backtracked. “I simply referenced what I have seen other people say about how we are incompatible, as currently divided, and that secession is something that people are speculating about,” Limbaugh said. “I am not advocating it, have not advocated, never have advocated it, and probably wouldn’t. That’s not something — 32 years — that’s not the way I’ve decided to go about handling disagreements with people on the left.”

Neither Texas nor Florida nor any other state seceded.

On Dec. 12, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-16-Ill.) tweeted: “I want to be clear: the Supreme Court is not the deep state. The case had no merit and was dispatched 9-0. There was no win here. Complaining and bellyaching is not a manly trait, it’s actually sad. Real men accept a loss with grace.”

On Jan. 6 Trump decided to vent his rage before his followers and incite them to attack the Capitol Building to overturn the election—and in the process destroy the legislative branch of government, kill its leaders and the Vice President. The effort failed.

Although he had retreated from secession, Limbaugh defended Donald Trump and his sedition: “There’s a lot of people calling for the end of violence,” he said the day after the insurrection. “A lot of conservatives, social media saying any violence, any aggression at all, is unacceptable—regardless of the circumstances. I’m glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual Tea Party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord, didn’t feel that way.”

After Limbaugh

The Capitol attack and the subsequent impeachment of Donald Trump seem to have lanced the boil of hatred, prejudice and rage that was swelling with the encouragement of Trump and Limbaugh. The smashed glass and dead police and rioters appear to have brought home to Trumpers and dittoheads the dangers and reality of violence and insurrection—and that rhetoric has repercussions.

Then, Mother Nature and climate change drove home the point: after all the anti-government rhetoric about going it alone and secession, the deep freeze crushing Texas has made clear that the Lone Star State needs the rest of the nation to survive in a modern, technological world with running water and reliable electricity.

The secession talk was never as strong in Florida as it was in Texas. Now, with Limbaugh gone from the American airwaves and Donald Trump banned from Twitter, sanity seems to be returning. Insurrection has been defeated and secession is not a serious notion.

In Florida Limbaugh’s legacy seems as ephemeral as the airwaves on which he broadcast and his ideas as impermanent as a passing tropical shower. His more concrete legacy lies in his palatial mansion, which is only one of many in the Sunshine State’s pricey precincts.

There are many evaluations and analyses of Rush Limbaugh being written now. There’s no denying that he created the genre of talk radio. At a time when AM radio was moribund and seemed headed to obsolescence (it couldn’t broadcast music in stereo like FM radio), Limbaugh’s torrent of words revived it and gave it a new role. It caught on and made him rich, famous and influential, inspired numerous imitators and created a right-wing mediasphere. He presented and shaped a political point of view held by millions of Americans, no matter how delusional, hateful and prejudicial it may be.

Perhaps the best summation of Limbaugh appeared in a 1999 book written by humorist Al Franken, who went on to be elected Minnesota’s junior senator.

That book was called Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot.

Liberty lives in light

©2021 by David Silverberg

Can Florida do the Georgia flip?

People celebrate Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election on Nov. 7, 2020, in Atlanta. (Photo: AP /Brynn Anderson)

Feb. 12, 2021 by David Silverberg

Florida Democrats are just starting to gear up for the challenges of 2022. The governorship, a Senate seat and, of course, all congressional seats are up for election.

Aside from the potential change of power, 2022 presents a chance for state Democrats to redeem themselves from the disastrous defeat of 2020.

In making their preparations, Florida Democrats can look north to Georgia where a stereotypically deeply conservative Republican stronghold voted Democratic for President and two senators.

Can the kind of work and effort that flipped Georgia blue be duplicated just south of the state line next year?

Hope, of course, springs eternal. Florida Democrats are trying to stand up, brush themselves off and regain their footing.

But getting from aspiration to actuality is a long and difficult road and the roads that run through Georgia’s clay and Florida’s sand are very different.

What adjustments need to be made? What factors were unique to 2020 and how will they change in 2022? What can Georgia teach Florida for next year?

Georgia’s march to victory

There were many factors that contributed to the Democratic victory in Georgia but some that stand out include:

Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

There’s long been debate among historians whether history is made by individuals or vast, impersonal forces. Stacey Abrams is living proof that people make history. A woman of extraordinary intelligence, drive and achievement, she demonstrably and individually steered this quintessentially southern and tradition-bound state in a new direction.

Most Floridians first heard of Stacey Abrams in 2018 when she came within 55,000 votes of winning the Georgia governor’s race. She did this despite rampant and blatant voter suppression and a Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, who oversaw the election rules even as he was running for governor. But after losing the election, instead of giving up she redoubled her efforts.

With Georgia flipping blue Abrams is now a political star but her overnight success was 10 years in the making—48 years if one starts counting from her birth. She tirelessly and relentlessly worked to increase voter registration, turn out minority communities and after her gubernatorial run, founded Fair Fight Action to oppose voter suppression. She saw the political possibilities in Georgia long before any other politician or pundit and worked to make them real. She drew up the strategy that ultimately resulted in victory.

Suburban growth and change

Atlanta has long billed itself as “the city too busy to hate.” From its earliest days it has been a commercial hub focused on business. Atlanta’s suburbs have grown exponentially and rapidly. According to the US Census Bureau, between 2010 and 2019 they went from 5.3 million people to more than 6 million, at the same time racially diversifying.

Throughout the 2020 campaign, polling repeatedly found that there was an educational divide between college-educated and non-college educated voters, with the former less favorable to Donald Trump. The nation’s suburbs, and Atlanta’s in particular, were better educated and more inclined to the Democratic Party. Also trending Democratic were educated, suburban women, to the point where Trump at a speech in October 2020 pleaded, “Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”

His pleadings didn’t work. “For a lot of women in the state, Trump kind of pushed them to the edge,” a Georgian named Jen Jordan told Emma Green in The Atlantic magazine article, “What Just Happened in Georgia?” When the Georgia legislature considered an anti-choice bill that would have made abortions illegal once a fetal heartbeat was detected, “The heartbeat bill was the thing that made them jump.”

“After the 2016 election, it became clear that the counties north of the city of Atlanta—Cobb, Gwinnett, the upper part of Fulton—were no longer homogenous conservative strongholds,” Green wrote. As a result, “The Trumpian brand of Republican politics does not play well in Atlanta, which prides itself on low taxes and business-friendly attitudes.”

African-American turnout

When it came to Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, “Black voters showed up at stratospheric levels and white voters did not. You saw really big shifts in heavily Black counties,” David Wasserman, an editor at the Cook Political Report was quoted saying in a Vox.com article, “Georgia went blue. Can Democrats make it happen elsewhere?

Getting that stratospheric turnout took Stacey Abrams and Democratic activists ten years to achieve—155 years, if counted from the end of the Civil War. But it was really propelled in the last two years.

Georgia’s Black voters had turned out in 2008 and 2012 to vote for Barack Obama. Abrams attributed her 2018 loss to voter suppression but in 2020 a combination of factors propelled by grassroots activism managed to galvanize Georgia’s communities of color and propel them to the polls.

The New Georgia Project, a voting rights group also founded by Abrams, “knocked on more than 2 million doors, made more than 6.7 million calls, and sent more than 4 million texts urging people to vote ahead of the runoffs,” Nsé Ufot, chief executive officer of the group, told Vox. “A larger coalition of progressive voting groups coordinated by America Votes knocked on more than 8.5 million doors, made about 20 million phone calls, and sent over 18 million texts.”

The growth of Georgia’s ethnic populations, more accessible voter registration and grassroots mobilization combined to deliver the state to Joe Biden for president and Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock for Senate.

But there was another factor that energized Georgia voters.

Trump, of course

Say what you will of Donald Trump, he certainly drove voters to the polls—whether they loved or hated him.

The massive voter turnout around the nation was true in Georgia as well and it yielded eye-popping results. It was one of 16 states where Trump lost ground from 2016. For the first time since 1992 Georgia voted more Democratic than Florida and it was the first time since 1860 that its Laurens and Monroe counties did not vote for the statewide winner. For the first time in 40 years Cobb County supported a Democrat for president.

The urgency, the implications and the magnitude of the Trump threat powered every election in the country and led to the unprecedented turnout, the massive absentee balloting and the critical need to reach all voters, no matter their political parties. As a result, in Georgia, Joe Biden won by 11,779 votes.

What was remarkable in Georgia was that the same forces that powered voters in the presidential race didn’t let up for the Senate runoff, which ultimately gave Georgia its two Democratic senators.


Marjorie Taylor Greene and the 14th District

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Image: Fred Guttenberg/Twitter)

While Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-14-Ga.) appears to have taken Trumpist delusion and paranoia to the limits of lunacy, she is as much a part of the Georgia story as Stacey Abrams.

Greene represents Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, a combination of 11 counties northwest of Atlanta. It bears some striking resemblances to Florida’s 19th Congressional District along the Southwest Gulf coast, not least in being 85 percent white.

However, the Florida 19th has a rating of R-13 from the Cook Political Report, the bible of congressional politics, meaning it is 13 percent more likely to vote Republican than the average district. By contrast, the Georgia 14th has a rating of R-27, meaning it is twice as conservative and Republican as the 19th—which, for a Southwest Floridian, is pretty hard to imagine.

In the past, the 14th’s elections have broken in the 75 percent range for Republicans, while the 19th usually breaks in the 60 to 65 percent range.

In 2020 the 14th’s representative in Congress, Rep. Tom Graves, retired. After an initial primary that featured nine Republican contenders—like the Florida 19th District—Greene beat challenger John Cowan, a neurosurgeon and businessman, in the Republican runoff. Kevin Van Ausdal, the Democratic candidate, then dropped out of the race in September, for “family and personal reasons”—i.e., a divorce that led him to leave the state for his parents’ home in Indiana. This left Greene the unchallenged candidate and sent her to Congress.

“Is this the best the 14th District can do?” mourned an editorial in the Dalton, Ga., Daily Citizen-News [grammar theirs]. “We don’t think so. … We challenge patriotic citizens to examine their life and to determine whether they should put themself forward in the next race for the congressional seat in two years. … The more and varied voices, the better. And we must do better.”


Comparing peaches and oranges

In looking at differences between the two states, one can start out with size and population.

Georgia is half the size of Florida. According to 2019 Census figures, Georgia has a population of 10.9 million people. By contrast, Florida has 21.48 million people.

Florida gained the greatest population of all states in 2019: 601,611, which works out to roughly 1,650 arriving every day. Georgia gained 284,541, or roughly 780 per day. Georgia has five television markets, Florida has 10.

Florida is widely acknowledged to be a fragmented, unwieldy state politically and a very tough state in which to manage a statewide political campaign. Georgia is much more compact.

But aside from those physical and demographic differences, there are other important contrasts between the two states.

Personalities and parties

While Georgia had the driven, persistent efforts of Stacey Abrams, Florida does not have the same guiding force.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came within a heartbreaking 32,463 votes of defeating Ron DeSantis in 2018. Like Abrams, he vowed to continue his fight for Democratic victories and policies after the election. He founded Forward Florida, which, like Abrams’ organizations, aimed to register voters. He seemed to have momentum and potential until a crushing personal scandal ended his public possibilities, seemingly permanently.

In Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is the highest ranking elected Democrat in the state and a very likely candidate for governor. But between her day job and her aspirations, driving voter turnout and fighting suppression is not her main focus.

“In Florida, Democrats have struggled to unite a sprawling, diverse coalition around a coherent plan to win races,” wrote Kirby Wilson in the article “What Florida Democrats have to learn from Stacey Abrams” in The Tampa Bay Times. “Even though nearly 5.3 million Floridians voted for Biden in 2020, some question whether Florida remains a swing state.”

Rick Wilson, the acerbic Republican operative and a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, put it more succinctly: “The Democratic Party of Florida cannot organize a two-car motorcade,” he told The Palm Beach Post. “They are terrible at this work — nothing personal against any one person. The Florida GOP is the best-run Republican Party in the country.”

And he’s also said that Democrats “don’t understand this is not a blue state, it is a red state with a blue tip on the south end.”

The Hispanic vote

One of the most striking stories of the 2020 election was Donald Trump’s inroads among Florida Hispanics.

For many years, knowledgeable political observers warned that it was misleading to view Hispanic voters as a monolithic block despite the tendency of many Democratic politicians and experts to see them that way. There are many different and diverse Hispanic communities, especially in Florida, and the 2020 election proved it.

Trump’s 2016 racist rants against Mexicans and Hispanic migrants and his incompetent handling of the 2017 Puerto Rico hurricane disaster were huge turnoffs to many Hispanics. But in 2020 his hardline policies and rhetoric against the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes and his targeted—and strident—anti-socialist message resonated among Florida’s Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American communities.

“Trump showed up in Florida. He asked us what our issues are and he addressed them. He didn’t take us for granted,” Bertica Cabrera Morris, a Republican strategist and a board member of Latinos for Trump, told NBC News immediately after the election.

As a result, while Biden made inroads in Miami-Dade County and ultimately won it, he did so by a far smaller margin—7 percent—than might otherwise be expected from 2016, when Trump lost it by 29 points.

Demographics

One myth that has persisted among Florida Democrats is that turning out minority votes, specifically Black votes, can swing the state. While every vote is important, the fact is that if every single non-white Floridian cast a Democratic ballot, Black voters constitute only 16 percent of Florida voters—in contrast to Georgia where they represent 31.9 percent. In a close Florida election minority communities can make a difference but even if fully mobilized they don’t have the same decisive weight as in Georgia.

Although Florida has a huge influx of residents moving in, it is also not clear that they are necessarily changing the political complexion of the state, as new Georgia residents did there. While New Yorkers constituted the largest number of new Florida residents (57,488) according to 2019 Census figures, it’s not clear that their political allegiances were necessarily Democratic or outweigh those of other contributors to Florida’s population. (Interestingly, the next largest influx to Florida came from Georgia with 49,681 people.)

The bottom line: Georgia and Florida have very different populations and political orientations and require different efforts and strategies.

Analysis: What’s new in ’22?

People expecting the 2022 elections in Florida to be a replay of 2020 will be more than disappointed—they will be wrong, no matter which party they support.

Aside from it simply being a different year, overall conditions will be significantly altered, not just throughout the world but especially in Florida. Some major changes include:

Gerrymandering

The importance of the decennial redrawing of political boundaries cannot be overstated. Florida may be in line for as many as two new members of Congress, which would mean two new congressional districts. With a Republican governor and legislature, the lines are overwhelmingly likely to be redrawn to Republican advantage. Democrats may resort to the courts to change them but Florida’s courts have been in conservative Republican hands since Jeb Bush’s governorship starting in 1999. The results of redistricting will have implications for at least the next decade and probably beyond.

Not Trump but Trumpism

As this is written, the impeachment trial of Donald Trump is underway. Whether he will run or be eligible for future office is unclear. But what seems very certain is that Trumpism is unlikely to die, especially in Florida. (For more on this see the article, “No need to secede: Welcome to Florumpia!”) Even if support for Donald Trump and the authoritarianism he represents cools, the sentiment powering his cult will likely continue to be a factor in Florida politics well beyond 2022. As of this writing Gov. Ron DeSantis seems all in on Trumpism and will likely be running as a full-fledged Trumper in 2022. There’s much talk of Trump’s spawn seeking statewide office and possibly taking on Sen. Marco Rubio for the US Senate.

Nowhere is the divide between Trumpism and Republicanism clearer and more obvious than in the Sunshine State. That could produce a split in the electorate, especially if Trump or someone else forms a “Patriot” or “MAGA” party, which would effectively be the Trump cult with a Florida mailing address. In 2022 three major parties—Democratic, Republican and Trumper—may be battling for Floridians’ ballots.

The pandemic

The state of the pandemic on Nov. 8, Election Day 2022, will no doubt be a major factor in the results. No one can know now whether the whole thing will be over or if new variants will continue to take their toll.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is betting that by 2022 Florida voters will remember him more for getting seniors vaccinated and not for the frustration, desperation and uncertainty that accompanied Florida’s vaccine rollout.

In 2020 the pandemic had a major impact on campaigning. In Florida Democrats heeded COVID warnings and did much of their campaigning remotely or in cars. Republicans, by contrast, either followed Trump’s lead and dismissed COVID as a hoax or simply ignored it when they did in-person campaigning. It didn’t matter to them if their voters, volunteers and staffers sickened and died as long as they lived long enough to cast ballots. Say what one will, it was a strategy that worked.

In 2022 Democrats will have to resume in-person campaigning, whether that means rallies, canvassing or get-togethers of any kind if they’re going to be competitive again. Presumably this will be possible with largely vaccinated populations but one cannot be sure at this point.

One other point that needs to be made: if President Joe Biden’s vaccination efforts work and if Floridians can connect his decisions to the end of the pandemic and their own health, it may just rebound to the benefit of state Democrats when people go to the polls. But getting people to connect good national policy to their personal benefit and rewarding politicians and parties with their votes is a long stretch—especially in Florida.

The economy

Measures taken by the Biden administration may lead the economy—both in Florida and nationally—to at least a modest recovery by Election Day 2022. Clearly, that will be a stark contrast with 2020 when the pandemic led to a massive downturn.

But recovery is not certain and the economic blows the nation took in 2020 will take a long time to heal. However, if there is some recovery, if the pandemic can be stopped or slowed and if “normal” economic activity can resume with some degree of safety, it may rebound to the Democrats’ benefit.

Throughout the pandemic DeSantis—following the lead of Trump, his patron—de-emphasized anti-COVID measures in favor of keeping businesses open. The political calculation here was that a relatively functional economy was worth the cost in lives.

The next election will tell us if that calculation paid off and how voters weigh the results.

The nominees

Of course, in looking ahead to a new election, personalities make a big difference. It is sufficient to say that if Democrats field vibrant, exciting and inspiring candidates at all levels who have messages that resonate with their voters, they will have a chance against an old guard tainted by its association with Trump, its complicity in his crimes and its self-destructive adherence to his delusions.

Georgia on my mind

So what must Democrats do to follow the Georgia playbook and flip Florida—despite the obvious differences between the two states?

In her book, Our Time is Now Stacey Abrams goes through her daily checklist as she evaluates the state of her campaign. It’s a good checklist for any campaign:

  • Early investments in infrequent voters;
  • Consistent, authentic progressive messaging;
  • Outreach in multiple languages;
  • Centering the issues of communities of color and marginalized groups typically exiled to the fringes of statewide elections.

In addition, just before the Senate runoff election, the Democratic Party of Georgia issued a six-page memo analyzing its 2020 presidential victory. While particular to the state, it also yielded some broader principles that could be applicable in Florida:

  • Build “a robust coalitions program aimed at engaging voters and elected officials in the Latino, AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander], African American communities, faith and religious leaders, military and veteran families, sportsmen and sportswomen, as well as youth, LGBTQI, women, progressive and Jewish coalitions.”
  • Build a digital-first organizing approach allowing the campaign to reach voters in new and creative ways, creating digital organizing hubs, speaking with voters on every platform, and hosting daily virtual events all over the state.
  • Using a combination of daily virtual and in-person events, drive the news cycle to parallel the broader campaign strategic imperatives on persuading and turning out voters. A strong surrogate program and regular principal travel also helps drive the news cycle and increase voter mobilization and engagement.
  • Blanket the airwaves on TV and radio, while leveraging targeted digital efforts and direct mail to boost turnout and bolster persuasion efforts.
  • Expand voter contact efforts to help voters apply for absentee ballots as early as possible and make voting by mail as easy as possible.

Obviously, Florida Democrats have some unique imperatives: they must win back the Hispanic voters that they lost in 2020; they must meet and defeat the “socialist” canard that Republicans threw—and continue to throw—at them; they must defeat voter suppression in all its forms; as the state of the pandemic allows, they must resume in-person campaigning. More than any other imperative, they must turn out voters from every nook and cranny and hiding place, from Florida’s swamps to its beaches to its urban jungles to its retirement villages and nursing homes.

The demographics of Georgia and Florida are very different. But Stacey Abrams has a very telling observation in her book and it is one Floridians can take to heart.

“Demography is not destiny,” she writes. “It is opportunity.”

Maybe, just maybe, Florida Democrats can find the opportunity in the changing demographics of their state by next year and make 2022 a year when Florida returns to its democratic traditions—but in a fresh, new and hopeful way.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg